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Marketing to dead people can be big business

21 November 2009 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Friday, October 30, 2009

“Is your make-up for dead people?” I asked.

“Excuse me?” said the customer service rep on the other end of the phone.

“Are your cosmetics meant for dead people to use?”


“Then why are you sending ads to dead people?”


“You sent a flyer in the mail addressed to my mother,” I said. “She’s been dead for 12 years.”

Marketing companies have a peculiar way of following people, even into the grave. In our advertising-driven society, names can live on indefinitely through marketing lists.

More than 90 percent of American households are on marketing lists, said Sue Geramian, a spokesperson for the Direct Marketing Association, a national organization with more than 3,100 member companies.

The industry is huge, generating $556 billion in sales annually. It also supports 3.2 million jobs at 300,000 businesses nationwide, said Geramian.

According to the DMA, marketers acquire these names through a variety of sources including: telephone book lists; high school and college directories; professional association lists; warranty registration cards; gift catalog purchases; political party donor lists; magazine subscription lists; and public records for births, marriages and divorces.

In addition, I found out that the three major credit reporting agencies – TransUnion, Experian and Equifax — all sell database marketing lists.

Lingering Ex-spouses

But database companies and organization are not always consistent about updating their information.

One woman I know received a University of California Berkeley Alumni magazine – addressed to her ex-husband – two countries, two states, five addresses and eight years after they had divorced. They had both been students at the school and married after graduation.

“Obviously, the database here didn’t know they divorced,” said Nancy Blattel, Director of Membership, Cal Alumni UC Berkeley. “Unless people tell us, we don’t know.”

The Cal Alumni office hires external database companies that use change-of-address-listings from the U.S. postal service to track people, she said. But, “We don’t get updates on whether people are married or divorced. We only get updates from people moving.”

The university also does not track when alumni die. They rely on survivors to tell them. “Sometimes people say, ‘My husband died 10 years ago.’ And we say, ‘We’ll make a note of it,’” said Blattel.

Advertising for the Dead

I had thought the phone conversation with the cosmetics company put a stop to direct mail addressed to my mother. But recently, I received another mailing addressed to her – this time from a cremation company.

By now, my mother had been dead for 16 years. I never lived with my mother as an adult, and since her death, I have resided in three cities at more than a dozen addresses. The only time my name was tied with my mother’s was when I signed her hospital and funeral papers.

So when I got a mailer from Smart Cremation advertising their burial services, I thought it was sort of creepy. I decided to give them a call for this story.

“We pay so-many-cents a name when we buy a list,” said Jerry Norman, chief executive office of Smart Cremation, a Redmond, Washington-based company. “It’s disappointing to hear that we are getting people who are deceased on those lists.”

The cremation company buys lists targeted at people age 60 and up, who are “planners,” and who need to lighten their “emotional burden,” said Norman. The company might buy a million names at a time.

Norman told me that anyone can easily access mailing lists by going online. Database marketing sites allow buyers to choose their target audience by any number of fields, including: zip code, demographics, income, purchase behavior or lifestyle interest. On one Web site I looked at, for example, one purchase behavior is “intend to purchase HDTV/Satellite Dish.” And under lifestyle interests, “cooking” alone breaks down into “general,” “gourmet,” “low fat” and “food groups.”

Smart Cremation favors direct mail over other forms of advertising, because it’s more discreet, said Norman. “It allows customers to read about something in the privacy of their own home, and make the decision as to whether they want to use the service.”

Opt-out sites

But direct marketers are becoming more sensitive to consumer and environmentalist complaints. Consumers loathe unwanted mail, while environmentalists are lobbying the industry to cut down on its enormous paper waste.

Marketers are responding by allowing consumers to opt out of mailing lists. Direct Marketing Association has an opt-out area at www.dmachoice.org. Cal Berkeley lets alumni update information on its Web site.  For unwanted phone calls, consumers can also register with a national ‘Do not call” registry.

“It’s important that your readers understand that there is a solution to unwanted advertising mail,” said Geramian in an email to me. DMA’s opt-out site has 4 million registered consumers who did not receive 930 million mailings in one year alone. “We encourage consumers to…take control of their mailboxes… (It) is a powerful consumer preference service allowing consumers to truly manage their mail – providing tools for a mailbox makeover.”

That’s comforting to know. I’ll have to tell my mother.

Where to remove your name from marketing lists





Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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