How Junk Mail Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark.

Chuck Bryant: I'm -

Josh Clark: And with me -

Chuck Bryant: Sorry, I was going to do the thing. And I'm Chuck Bryant!

Josh Clark: And this is -

Chuck Bryant: Stuff.

Josh Clark: You.

Chuck Bryant: Should.

Josh Clark: Know.

Chuck Bryant: That's terrible, but I like it.

Josh Clark: That was totally off the cuff though, I think we should say.

Chuck Bryant: I think it's a bit obvious.

Josh Clark: Chuck, you ever been to Austin, Texas?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I love Austin.

Josh Clark: I've heard nothing but good things, keep Austin weird and all. I've never been.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, very cool city.

Josh Clark: But I do know that if you go to Austin, Texas right now and you go to MLK Boulevard near the corner of Alexander Avenue, you're going to find a little gallery. And it is called the Flat Bed Press Art Gallery.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: And if you go into there, like I said, right now, you're going to find a piece of art, an art installation and it's called Free Paper.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: Have you heard of this?

Chuck Bryant: Yes, because you told me.

Josh Clark: Well, I'll tell everybody else, then. There's a woman, named Annette Lawrence. And she's a Texas artist, right? And basically what she did was she saved a year's worth of junk mail.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And it came to total 265 pounds, by the way, just junk mail.

Chuck Bryant: Goodness.

Josh Clark: And she tore it into two inch strips and then basically put it together in stacks, by month, and then put it on shelves, so there's 12 little separate - it's almost like a cross-section of junk mail.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: The way she did it, I wouldn't have thought to do it this way, but she really gets the point across with minimal space. It's quite beautiful, until you think about it's junk mail.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And as I understand it, she's not the only junk mail artist that's going on right now, which is surprising.

Chuck Bryant: No. There's a bunch. And I have another one here. And her name is Barbara Hashimoto, an American artist. And she works with junk mail. She does provocative art installations, little interactive type of thing.

Josh Clark: She's a provocateur.

Chuck Bryant: She's a provocateur. And what she'd done, and this is generally like most junk mail artists are probably making a political statement, an environmental statement. And that's what she's doing. And she is in Chicago. And she set aside the junk mail from her business for a year. So it was quite a bit more, obviously, than a person would get. And she ended up with 3,000 cubic feet. And then she shredded it, actually, with a paper shredder. She had one called junk mail with grand piano. And what she would do is she got this piano player with a grand piano and put them in a room, facing a street with glass so people could see in, obviously. And he would start playing this symphony, not symphony, but some nice piano music. I sound like such a lunkhead there. I'm a musician too. And so he's playing the piano and she starts dumping this shredded junk mail on him and on the piano, as he's doing it. And basically, it's a process. And at the end of it, this guy can't even be heard any more. He's completely covered. The piano's completely covered. And you hear just these little muffled hammered sounds of the piano string.

Josh Clark: Nice. It definitely gets the point across, doesn't it?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's pretty cool.

Josh Clark: Okay. So for the rest of us, who have neither the time nor the inclination to play with junk mail, right, make statements with junk mail, I should say, obviously it's annoying. I shouldn't even say that. It's just so blatantly obvious. But it's also kind of harmful. Junk mail's harmful.

Chuck Bryant: Extremely.

Josh Clark: Number one, you can very easily become the victim of identity fraud.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Just from preapproved credit card applications. I think there's something like 400,000 cases of identity theft every year.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: That are attributed just to preapproved credit cards.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: That's Sid Kirschner, by they way. That's his figure.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: He's a consumer guru.

Chuck Bryant: That's good.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So that's a problem right there, in and of itself.

Chuck Bryant: My wife is a master shredder. She is on top of our household, as far as the mail and the bills. And she shreds everything like that. She shreds things that I'll be like oh this is stupid. You don't need to shred my Sports Illustrated re-up thing. She will. Coincidentally, we've never had our identity stolen. So people that just toss that -

Josh Clark: You should really knock on wood.

Chuck Bryant: I know. People that just toss that into the trash, it's really not very smart!

Josh Clark: No, it's not. I usually burn mine.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, that's good.

Josh Clark: Seriously.

Chuck Bryant: Just out of spite?

Josh Clark: Well I don't have a shredder, but I don't want to just toss it in the trash either.

Chuck Bryant: So you heat your home with it.

Josh Clark: Or sometimes, this is kind of weird, but sometimes I will take the most sensitive parts of it and tear it off and then eat it.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: No going through that trash, pal.

Chuck Bryant: Well that actually, what you said before about burning it leads me to an interesting stat that I've just flown in from the home office.

Josh Clark: Let's hear it.

Chuck Bryant: 250,000 homes could actually be heated from a single day's worth of junk mail in the United States.

Josh Clark: By burning it?

Chuck Bryant: Mm-hmm.

Josh Clark: That would be awful.

Chuck Bryant: Not a single household, obviously. It's all the junk mail in the country.

Josh Clark: Right. But I'm saying I don't think we should be setting this on fire, right?

Chuck Bryant: Well no, it's just to kind of drive the point home.

Josh Clark: Oh, gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: Four million tons a year in the United States alone, and a final stat, Josh, if you're interested.

Josh Clark: Oh, of course.

Chuck Bryant: This is a really sad one. 44 percent of all junk mail goes unopened and is put into a landfill, eventually.

Josh Clark: Yes, and Chuck, I have another stat for you. This is our stat heavy junk mail podcast special. Did you know that with the amount of paper that's thrown out by Americans every year -

Chuck Bryant: Junk mail or just paper?

Josh Clark: Junk mail is part of it. This includes junk mail. This is just paper. But it's going to lead me back around in a second, so bear with me. You could build a 12 foot tall wall from New York to Los Angeles.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: That's annually.

Chuck Bryant: They should build that wall.

Josh Clark: Think about how incredibly thin paper is. You can make it 12 feet tall and all the way from New York to L.A.

Chuck Bryant: How thick? I guess paper thin.

Josh Clark: Paper width, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. That wouldn't be much of a wall.

Josh Clark: Like you're laying a piece of paper flat on the ground and stacking them up until it's 12 feet tall.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, I get it.

Josh Clark: So it would be what, eight and a half inches wide.

Chuck Bryant: I thought you were taping it all together so you could just poke your finger through it.

Josh Clark: That would be stupid. Well this is the Clean Air Council and I would like to think that they wouldn't toy with me like that.

Chuck Bryant: You're right.

Josh Clark: But as always, as Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of lies, lies, damn lies and statistics. So you should always take statistics with a grain of salt, but how about this? Clearly, there is a ton of junk mail that's wasted every year. Can we agree on that one?

Chuck Bryant: Four million tons.

Josh Clark: Yes, that is a statistic too.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Okay. So you've got credit card fraud. You've got waste. But not just waste, it's also input. You have to consider the input. It takes a tremendous amount of water, actually, to make paper.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which is kind of odd because paper's dry, but to separate the fibers and make this into a pulp, they add tons of water. There's actually a process where, first, they wash wood off, right, to get any impurities out. They send it into a steamer for four hours. Then they chop it up and it turns into a pulp. And then they add water to the ratio of about 200 to one, 200 parts water to one part pulp.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And then they dry it out, right.

Chuck Bryant: Were you laughing at my amazement?

Josh Clark: No, I was laughing at this astronomical use of water to make paper, right. And then they dry it out. And when they're drying it out, they're actually using steam heated rollers. So there's more water right there. Then there's another part to the end before they do the final dry where they add more water and then dry it out to make it slick and glossy.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Yes. So that's a lot of water. Of course, a lot of trees.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Are used specifically for paper.

Chuck Bryant: Right, about 100 million a year. Is that right?

Josh Clark: That's what the University of Oregon says, if I'm not mistaken.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's a lot of trees.

Josh Clark: It is a lot of trees. And it's kind of sad to think about it, but many are grown specifically to become paper, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: I must say that paper mills do reuse water.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, they do?

Josh Clark: Just for cost effectiveness.

Chuck Bryant: Right, of course.

Josh Clark: So they re reusing water, but still, there's 28 billion gallons of water used annually to produce paper.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's a lot.

Josh Clark: And that's input. So if they're reusing it, they're still using a lot of water.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And I hate to use they. I don't mean to be inclusive and exclusive and in group and out group like the paper industry is just the evil tobacco industry, which God knows they're evil.

Chuck Bryant: You're holding paper right now.

Josh Clark: I am holding paper. I use paper. But I recycle all paper.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, me too.

Josh Clark: Like we have that single stream recycling thing where all the waste baskets at the desks are basically recycling bins. I never throw anything away in there. It's only paper.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: I practice what I preach, friend.

Chuck Bryant: That's good. I'm not calling you to task, buddy.

Josh Clark: That's fine. I can settle down because my fight or flight response is just pumping.

Chuck Bryant: I know. It's kicked in.

Josh Clark: Okay. So Chuck, it's a waste, right.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: It's annoying. It's potentially threatening, as far as finances go, with identity theft. What can an individual do to fight the good fight against direct mail?

Chuck Bryant: Well -

Josh Clark: Which, by the way, can I give you one more figure?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, yeah.

Josh Clark: This is a figure, not a stat, too, so it's much more reliable. First of all, did you even know that there's such a thing as direct mail pharmaceuticals?

Chuck Bryant: No. You get pills through the mail?

Josh Clark: No. You can get pills through the mail, yes, but this is like advertising, direct mail advertising for pharmaceuticals.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: I have never gotten one. I don't know. It's probably because I don't have a primary physician. But the direct mail pharmaceutical market, alone, in 2008, racked up 10.6 billion in sales, based specifically on direct mail.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: They were turning an investment for $1.00 was $10.27. Every dollar they spent on direct mail advertising raked them in $10.27, in 2008. And that's just one sector.

Chuck Bryant: Wow. We're in the wrong business, buddy.

Josh Clark: Totally. I've always said we need to start making our own pharmaceuticals and selling them.

Chuck Bryant: I know. This podcasting gig is just not paying.

Josh Clark: We're not making 10 billion. I'll tell you that.

Chuck Bryant: No, we're not.

Josh Clark: Or anything, actually.

Chuck Bryant: So what can be done? I'm going to leave the secon d part to you about official websites and things.

Josh Clark: I thought you left the first part to me.

Chuck Bryant: No. I'm going to go with the first part. One thing you can do is you can actually send it back. This is not about stopping it from coming to your home. But instead of being angry and just burning it or whatever you do, shooting it with your gun.

Josh Clark: Eating it.

Chuck Bryant: Eating it and processing it through your own miserable body.

Josh Clark: Some ink is better than others. I can tell you that.

Chuck Bryant: I bet. You can actually send it back. Junk mail is usually first class or third class, which is called bulk rate. And if your envelope is stamped address correction requested or return postage guaranteed, you can return it, unopened, to the sender, by writing refused, return to sender on the envelope. Stick it back in your mailbox and flip up your little flag.

Josh Clark: Oh, flag. I didn't think you were going to say flag.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, flip up your flag.

Josh Clark: Gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: But you can only do this on bulk mail with that special notification on it. If you have a solicitation that has postage paid reply envelope, then just put a note, saying that you want to be removed from the mailing list and include that mailing label or write refused on it. And you might actually get taken off that list. So that's one way to do it.

Josh Clark: Thanks to our friend, the Internet, it's gotten a lot easier to stop getting junk mail, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: There are actual sites that are dedicated to you not getting junk mail. Remember the do not call registry?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: There's been several attempts to create a do not mail registry, basically. And it hasn't taken off. It may in the future. Who knows? But as it stands for now, it's up to the individual to take care of their own junk mail stream, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And like I said, the Internet is a great tool for that, like OptOutPreScreen.com is one place you can go. And basically, the reason we have junk mail is because your name and address and personal information is actually valuable. It's valuable on its own, in a very small amount, fractions and fractions of a cent.

Chuck Bryant: As a single individual, true.

Josh Clark: When you put it together with thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of other people -

Chuck Bryant: Millions.

Josh Clark: Millions, I'll go with millions, sure. Then all of a sudden, that list, as a whole, becomes valuable.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark : So people who have your information or millions of people's information can put these things together and make some extra scratch on the side.

Chuck Bryant: By selling it to direct marketers.

Josh Clark: Right. And one group that aggregates this information are credit reporting bureaus. They are allowed, by law, to give out certain personal information about you like name, address, preferences.

Chuck Bryant: To sell it.

Josh Clark: That's the stuff that you've provided, to sell it for their own behalf. You get absolutely nothing for it.

Chuck Bryant: I know, except junk mail.

Josh Clark: And they make money off of it, yeah. And what you get in the end is junk mail. So the OptOutPrescreen.com website basically makes it so the four major credit reporting bureaus can't sell your stuff any longer.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And it will take a little while to get off the lists, but you will eventually, hopefully be purged. And that lasts for five years. Or I think you can also do a lifetime block on selling.

Chuck Bryant: Why wouldn't you just do that? It would be great.

Josh Clark: I don't know. It doesn't make any sense.

Chuck Bryant: In five years, I might want to get this junk mail, so I'll just go with the five.

Josh Clark: You know actually there are - there's this group called the Direct Market Association. And they may be the bane of most people's existence.

Chuck Bryant: How's that?

Josh Clark: Because they're actually a trade association of direct marketers.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And luckily, they have a nice little website that you can access to opt out. It's called DMAConsumers.org. And they have basically the same thing that you'll find at OptOutPrescreen. They have 5,200 member companies and it's not just for profit business. Non-profits, political action groups are members of the DMA. And when you get taken off the DMA's list, you get taken off of all these people's mailing lists.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So that's another thing you can do. There's steps you can take or actually there's steps that you cannot take that can keep you off.

Chuck Bryant: Right, warranty cards?

Josh Clark: Warranty cards, like think about this. When I researched this article, I hadn't thought about it at the time. I thought back to when I filled out a warranty card because I must admit. I am one of the suckers who actually has filled out a warranty card and mailed it in. Why the Cuisinart Company whose blender I just purchased would care whether my household would be most interested in hunting and fishing magazines or skydiving magazines. It didn't dawn on me at the time. That's a little odd. And I think I even remember checking a box, like we're not really into hunting and fishing, but we're more into skydiving these days, so check. And then all of a sudden, I got skydiving magazine come-ons. MasterCard is sending me a preapproved card with a skydiver on it, like we know you'll like this, sucker. And it's bad. So never fill out a warranty card because we talked about extended warranties before. If you have you receipt -

Chuck Bryant: That's your warranty card.

Josh Clark: That's your warranty.

Chuck Bryant: Because if they say you have a warranty and you have the receipt, then you have the warranty. You don't need to fill out a card to insure that you have the warranty.

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Chuck Bryant: It's just a big scam.

Josh Clark: It is a huge scam.

Chuck Bryant: You know those bits that sometimes you'll hear the morning radio shows do where they'll call the head of the telemarketing company at midnight and wake him up and say how do you like it, do you now your company and all this other stuff. We should find out the person - there's one person, I'm sure, where all the junk mail originates. Find out where this dude lives and let's just go and wallpaper his house with grocery store flyers.

Josh Clark: His name is Rusty.

Chuck Bryant: Rusty would wake up and try to look out his window and all he would see is ground beef, $1.99.

Josh Clark: He'd be like a piano player with a bunch of junk mail dumped on him. You couldn't hear his screams.

Chuck Bryant: Sorry Rusty.

Josh Clark: Exactly. You brought this on yourself, Rusty. Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Josh.

Josh Clark: We're not quite done here.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: There's actually businesses that you can subscribe to that will go to the trouble of getting you off lists.

Chuck Bryant: True. I know our producer recommended one.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it's Green Dimes, we believe. And basically, our producer, Jeri, said that there's a free service where you can kind of just do the basic job. But their $20.00 annual membership fee, actually these people actively work. If they can't send something in on your behalf, like it needs your signature, maybe your social security number, which you will be asked for once in a while. This is not you being lured into an even bigger scam.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But they need it for verification. I'm not certain that they need it, but they require it for verification. So if Green Dimes can't just do it as the third party telling somebody else to back off, they send you all the stuff, like these form letters that you sign, mail them back to them and Green Dime mails it for you. And then they monitor. And by the way, I don't own any stock in Green Dime or anything. I'm just kind of taken by this company.

Chuck Bryant: They may not be publicly traded anyway.

Josh Clark: Well, my dad didn't found it, if that's what you mean.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: They monitor all these lists, mailing lists, every m onth on a monthly basis to make sure your name stays off. And if not, they go after the people for you.

Chuck Bryant: That's worth 20 bucks a year, if you ask me.

Josh Clark: And they plant five trees when you join.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, well there you have it, four bucks a tree.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: That's awesome.

Josh Clark: Sure. Well it depends on the tree.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's true. I'm going to sign up for that. I didn't know about that.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And remember; never fill out a warranty card.

Chuck Bryant: Don't do it.

Josh Clark: Never respond to a publisher's clearinghouse sweepstakes.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, anything that says - what does it say on the -

Josh Clark: You may have already won.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, but a lot of times it's not even our name. It will just say occupant.

Josh Clark: Occupant.

Chuck Bryant: Or something like that.

Josh Clark: If you respond to that, you will end up on what's called a sucker list.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And that's actually what it's called in the industry because you have shown that you are gullible and your junk mail will increase tremendously.

Chuck Bryant: And your name pops up on the sucker list and that's when all these companies go oh, we got one, we got one.

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Chuck Bryant: Let's get in there.

Josh Clark: That's the lead of leads right there.

Chuck Bryant: Right, and that's my impression of a junk mail dude.

Josh Clark: Yeah, that was good.

Chuck Bryant: Thanks.