DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 32: Junk Mail Babylon

By Ray Schultz

The calumny over junk mail was only part of the problem for the old-timers: The real threat was a device that took up an entire room, with wires and tubes sticking out of it, that needed to be constantly cooled. In his novel, The End Of The Battle, Evelyn Waugh, satirically described an early version of this machine being used in World War II. “It’s been flown in from America,” Mr. Oates, a bureaucrat explains to Captain Guy Crouchback, an officer desperately seeking a war assignment. “It took 560 man-hours to install. The mechanics came from America, too. There isn’t another like in the country.”

“But what is it?”
 “An Electronic Personnel Selector.”
Mr. Oates demonstrated it. “Now here—“ he picked up a chit from his tray—“is a genuine enquiry. I’ve been asked to find an officer for special employment; under forty, with a university degree, who has lived in Italy and has Commando training—one, two, three, four, five—“ Whirr, click, click, click, click, click. “’Here we are. Now that is a remarkable coincidence.’”

“The card he held bore the name A/TY. Captain Crouchback, G, R.C.H., att H.O.O. HQ.”

This wasn’t as much of a joke as it seemed. In 1945, the New York Times revealed one of “the war’s top secrets,” a system that applied “electronic speeds for the first time to mathematical tasks hitherto too difficult and cumbersome for solution.”

That was the computer. At first, it was mostly used by the military. Only a few companies owned one—others had to rent timeshares, and work through the night at the mercy of unbathed technicians. But when used with a printer and mailing lists stored on tapes, the computer could spit out junk mail letters by the thousands.

John Stevenson bought one for $700,000 in 1958. “The computer didn’t create great growth or even save us a lot of money,” he said. “You had to go from low-paid help to more expensive help.” He admitted, though, that “If it wasn’t for the computer, I would have run the risk of being in jail. There were so many mistakes.”

But many hard-headed people didn’t get it. The DMMA, the brainchild of the convicted killer Victor Louis Eytinge, held a seminar on the computer in 1965, but “It wasn’t very well attended,” admitted Robert Delay, the wavy-haired Midwesterner who led the association from 1959 to 1984. “We ran it about three times, then we couldn’t afford to run it any longer, we didn’t have enough participants. The cost began to be picked up by computer manufacturers.”

Around this time, the Post Office introduced the Zip Code, the postal coding system that helped postmen sort mail and would allow businesses to hone their geographic targeting to a very fine level. It was a gift. But once again, junk mailers opposed it.

“The ZIP code was terribly important. we wouldn’t have had mail delivered otherwise,” DeLay said. “We had a series of meetings around the country to explain it. We lost a lot of members. Pete Hoke (son of the Nazi fighter Henry Hoke)) used to editorialize against it every week. It would kill all the vendors, it was too costly. And it meant that lettershops had to change to computerization. A few said they would never change, and of course they aren’t in business.”

Fueled by constant media coverage, the public was growing ever-more tired of junk mail. So in 1971, Delay and his part-time Washington person James Daly, formulated a brilliant PR stunt called the Mail Preference Service. Consumers could send their name in to opt out of receiving all direct mail. DMMA members had to subscribe to the service, which provided them with frequent updates. Later, this was extended to telemarketing with the Telephone Preference Service.

It took awhile to take off. DeLay was called to testify before Congress. Then-Congressman Ed Koch said, ‘Mr. DeLay, I understand that the biggest member of your association doesn’t use the Mail Preference Service.’ DeLay recalled, “I was gonna have to admit that was true, then a guy by the name of Gertz from Donnelley stood up and said, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind, I can answer that question. We decided at a board meeting last week that we were going to adhere to the Mail Preference Service.’

In the most important development of all, Lester Wunderman, renamed the activity direct marketing. The logic was that this form of advertising was built on data and various other media—not just direct mail. The trade association eventually changed its name.

With this seeming stamp of legitimacy, a better class of client started using direct mail, and that meant work for the writers. For instance the J. Walter Thompson ad agency hired its first direct mail copywriter, Ed McLean, a literary type who had knocked around in New Orleans and thought he was applying for an editorial job when Red Dembner hired him as a direct mail writer at Newsweek. He was treated with the utmost disrespect at JWT.

“Direct mail was shit in the ad world,” McLean said in an interview in 1995. “It was not commissionable. When creating TV or radio spots, you could make money even for production costs. But in mail, the costs were very low, so you couldn’t make any money on that.”

At JWT, the main direct mail copywriter was “an old hack living in Montclair,” McLean recalled. “She would put out old copy when she came with an assignment. They’d scratch out the old date and recycle it.”

Worse yet, the designers “didn’t like to design for mail,” he continued. “A designer would hold it up like this”—McLean then held his nose—“and let it drop to the floor.”

Finally, he had to go to the “animal trainer in charge of the copywriters” to get a seating assignment every day. “I wandered around for six months,” he said. “I never had an office. I had a manual typewriter on a dolly.”

There was good reason for this disdain. For even as McLean wrote an award-winning letter on diesel cars for Mercedes-Benz (‘Forget it, Heinz,’ the experts told me. ‘It just won’t sell here.’) a trio made up of Monroe Caine, David L. Ratke and Herman Liebenso offered a chemically impregnated car-cleaning mitt called the ROLL-A-SHNE, claiming it was developed by the General Electric Company, tested by the U.S. Army and Navy and endorsed by Reader’s Digest.

Not a word of this was true. The Federal Trade Commission forced all three men to sign a consent order agreeing to cease advertising falsely “the quality, composition, characteristics, performance, endorsement, and guarantee” of the mitt.

Caine wasn’t through: A decade later, he was convicted of 72 counts of mail and wire fraud for his role in peddling the “Sperry Unitron,” a device that supposedly increased gasoline mileage. Caine wrote that the Unitron was a new invention by one of America’s leading scientists (co-developer of synthetic tires and power brakes).

Not true: The unknown inventor worked out of his garage, an appellate court noted when refusing to overturn their convictions.

Worse, there was “no mention that the Unitron was actually a can of engine detergent which needed to be replaced with every tankful of gas rather than a solid device which would not need replenishment,” the court went on. Not that it mattered: “Customers failed to receive their Unitron, even after their checks were deposited in Sperry’s account,” the court concluded.

Caine and his colleagues drew four years in the slammer for that scheme to defraud.

Later, Caine worked with a career con man named Norman Chanes, whose mail order firms, Encore House, was raided by postal inspectors after several thousand consumers complained about binoculars and other products sold by the company. Chanes and Cain signed a consent decree with the FTC, agreeing to pay $250,000 in consumer redress and $100,000 in civil penalties. As rumor had it, Caine had to agree not to write direct marketing copy for five years as part of one of his plea deals.

Around this time, an entity called Farragut Research offered an extensive collection of pornography to anyone who signed up for a “scientific research survey”—for a fee. You have been chosen for this survey because you are known to be of better-than-average intelligence and to have exceptional sexual prowess, the direct mail letter said.

But it warned: You must make every effort to keep these products out of the hands of children, even though children play a large role in the actual films and tapes.

When queried by a reporter, a postal inspector said, “I think we’ve gotten some complaints on that”—not for the child pornography, but over non-delivery of the products. It dawned on the reporter that this was a sting designed to entrap people who purchased kiddie porn.

The reporter went for a get-aquatinted visit with postal inspector Sherry Treuax, an attractive woman with short-cropped hair, who had a gun in a shoulder holster on her desk, at the Post Office building on Ninth Ave. in New York. Another inspector, Bob Mignonya, came in and expressed satisfaction about a criminal case they had just closed.

“As of now, they’re convicted felons,” he said of the perpetrators.

There were others.

Inspector Treuax, who like Mignonya was a professional descendant of Anthony Comstock, produced some clippings from the Newark Star Ledger about Ira Smolev, purveyor of the Panama Ceiling Fan, which “barely stirred the sir,” and the Tilt-Top Table and Bavarian Beer Stein, which were also not as advertised. In addition to bringing in cash orders, these offerings sucker lists that could be rented out. But these were the least of his offenses.

Smolev’s Perth Amboy, New Jersey warehouse had burned down in mysterious circumstances. And now he was being probed because cosmetics donated by Revlon to the Association for the Help of Retarded Children had ended up in his warehouse, and he was marketing them by mail.

In 1984, Smolev copped a plea to one count each of mail fraud, conspiracy and interstate transportation of property taken by fraud. And, in a separate case, the he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, resulting from his promotions for Tilt Top Table and other products. Along the way, there were consent decrees with the ederal Trade Commission. Smolev, who was injured in a car crash around this time, never served a day in jail.

And so it was that the old-timers in the junk mail business, honest and otherwise, were replaced by younger talent. The legitimate ones, those who had been around since the ’30s and ‘40s, were given plaques for their service and ushered off the stage. Max Sackheim retired at age 70 the same year Homer Buckley died. Sackheim’s son Sherman bought the Sackheim agency with three other people, but left after a few years, wishing that his father had sold his share of the Book of the Month Club for what it was worth.

“Would I be sitting in my little ticky tacky house in Clearwater, Florida, waiting for my little Social Security check?” he asked in 1995. “It would be worth $100 million now between me and my brother, but I can’t eat more than three meals a day.”

Bob DeLay retired in 1984, and started a newsletter. The writer Bill Jayme provided him with a free direct mail letter, featuring the headline: “Should you tell your boss when his fly is open?”

Frank Johnson, the master copywriter, retired from American Heritage in 1976, although he freelanced for another decade for the Nature Conservancy. In 1998, now a widower, the 85 year-old Johnson sat in his ground-floor apartment across from the Museum of Natural History, with his wife Helen’s grandfather clock looking on, and said, “I’m glad I’m not doing it anymore. I made a good living at the time.”

John Stevenson retired, too, but It was easier for him because his wife was wealthy “You’ll have a nice life, but you’ll never make much money,” he said over coffee in their vast apartment on Fifth Ave. in 1997. “It’s a small business.”

Stevenson then revealed the enduring formula for junk mail copy from the days of J.M. Pattee to Max Sackheim: “It’s like the old story about the clergyman who had so many converts. He was asked his secret. He said, ‘I tell them what I’m gonna tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I told them.’”

Chapter 33: Rub The Buddha For Money

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