Junk Mail
Junk Mail and The
Metaphysics Of Life In America

A Look At The Pre & Post 9/11 Mailbox

By: Thomas M. Ciesla, February, 2003


  In my mailbox I am popular. In my mailbox I am an important person. Each day I receive reminders telling me how special I am, how much fun I am and just how much people need me. In my mailbox, I am the person I always knew I would be, I am loved, and the world is a shiny, happy place. How do I know these wondrous things about myself? My junk mail told me so!

Junk mail -- also called direct mail or bulk mail -- is big business, generating billions of dollars annually in the U.S. alone. The average American receives around 1,200 pieces of junk mail each year, representing just over 100 pounds of paper. To feed this behemoth each year we chop down 100 million trees, consume billions of gallons of water, and then stuff our landfills with the discarded remnants. Junk mail, by definition, is stuff we don't want in our mailboxes. Advertisers know that over 50% of junk mail is sent to the trashcan unopened, but as any good sidewalk salesman knows, if you bang on enough doors, you're bound to make a sale. Some junk mail is insidious – and effective perhaps -- because it comes bundled together with your real mail. The 'special offers' packed with your credit card bill or the 'newsletter' bundled with your utility bill are also forms of junk mail, and since you've already opened the envelope, chances are you'll at least glance at the ads inside.

Of course, the primary purpose of junk mail is to separate you from your money. As with any media created to appeal to the masses, be it movies, television or music, packaging and content say as much about the media as the target audience. “Salesman, know thy customer!” The device that drives the junk mail marketing engine is the mailing list – the thousands of lists generated and sold by organizations from all walks of life. Typically, each of us (that is our name and address) is worth anywhere from 3-to-20 cents, depending on the nature of the list. What is both fascinating – and shocking – is that our names are shared or sold hundreds, perhaps thousands of times each year without our knowledge. We exist as 'virtual beings', in a multitude of databases across the country and are routinely traded as a commodity.

Our placement on these lists is the result of performing some of the simplest, most fundamental tasks required of us in today's society. If you own a vehicle or a home, have ever registered to vote, obtained a drivers license, credit card or use one of those discount cards at the supermarket, you've been placed on numerous mailing lists. After that initial placement, your identity is cloned across multiple databases as fast as a virus can spread on the Internet.

One woman discovered just how quickly organizations share mailing lists when she donated to a reputable charity. Within three weeks of her donation, she began receiving a continuous stream of junk mail from dozens of other charitable organizations. How many charitable requests did she receive during the previous year? None. Many of the donation requests came with those personalized return address labels. Some people cannot bring themselves to use those labels without donating something to the organization – “It just wouldn't be right”, one elderly woman said to me. Unfortunately, the elderly -- typically raised with this ethical and moral perspective -- are the ones least able to afford to donate.

For another woman, a trip back home to see her mother, an 84-year old widow living alone, was an eye opener. She was surprised to find her mother's kitchen literally stuffed with charitable junk mail. The daughter learned that her mother had responded to one or two charitable requests with a $20 check and the floodgates were opened. The more she sent in those $10, $15, or $20 donations, the more requests she received. The daughter subsequently discovered that over the past year her mother's response to these requests had depleted much of her savings account.

Logic tells us that no one forces us to open our junk mail, or send in donations, or to use those return address labels; all that mail can simply be tossed in the trash without remorse. But advertisers understand that we tend to act emotionally rather than logically, which is why junk mail works despite the low response rate (typically 2%). Impulse spending is based on emotion, not logic. In order to sell to us, advertisers know us; they know what makes us tick and what pushes our buttons. In this context, junk mail is a window into our society's psyche.

"...advertisers understand that we tend to act emotionally rather than logically..." To understand what our junk mail says about us, I decided to save every piece of junk mail I received during the second quarter of 2001. The result was a daunting mass of paper that sat stoically in boxes, waiting for analysis. And then the tragedy of September 11 befell us. Millions sat shocked and forsaken, watching the horrifying images of those burning Manhattan towers crumbling to dust on our televisions. As networks played and replayed the video of the plane turning into the second tower, we were told innumerable times that this country had been changed forever. To test whether junk mail is in fact a mirror on society, I decided to collect a sample for the second quarter of 2002. If the country had changed, shouldn't there be a change in my junk mail?


Who Were We Pre-9/11?

In the first half of the 20th century America was a chaotic assembly of disparate forces. The country was transforming itself from an agricultural society to an industrial one. We participated in two world wars, suffered financial collapse and the Great Depression, and absorbed the final wave of European immigration. By mid-century the pain and hardship of WWII were behind us and the country experienced a surge of renewed enthusiasm. European immigrants began to assimilate into society, primarily through their children born on American soil. Around the same time began what was to be one of the greatest migrations in American history: the movement of southern blacks to the North as the war industries of the 1940's allowed the automotive and steel companies to blossom, thereby attracting jobseekers. This was a migration that over a 30-year period raised the presence of African Americans living in the North from 27% to 47%.

In the second half of the 20th century, America experienced unprecedented growth as the economy and our technological base grew leaps and bounds compared to other nations. We put a man on the Moon, fought a number of undeclared wars in both hemispheres and were at the vanguard of personal computers and the Internet. At the same time, a prosperous post-war Europe no longer sent large numbers of immigrants, who were being increasingly replaced by a new wave of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. The Hispanic immigrants of 2000, like the Italian immigrants of 1900 came from societies where institutions couldn't be trusted, and tended to concentrate in only a few states. Asian immigrants of 2000 resembled the Jewish immigrants of 1900, having come from years of persecution. Like the Jews, the Asians had long traditions of learning and had great economic success in the U.S. with subsequent persecution.

Both of these groups maintain strong contacts with families back home, often returning to their country after sending the money earned in the States. Like the immigrants of 1900, each group tends to cluster in neighborhood enclaves, often where the crime rate is higher than the surrounding area. Unlike the 1900 immigrants, however, the immigrants of 2000 have, in general, less of a commitment to assimilating into society. This has exacerbated a growing trend for the population to fracture along ethnic and racial lines. Where immigrants were once proud to call themselves “Americans”, today we see a rise in the use of labels such as “African American”, “Latin American”, Hispanic American, or Asian American”. Ironically, during his 2000 election campaign, then Vice President Al Gore mistranslated the national motto – e pluribus Unum – by saying that our people are being transformed from one to many. In this error, Mr. Gore inadvertently identified the growing issue of ethnicity superceding nationalism at the end of the 20th century.

Our society also changed in subtler ways. The middle class shrank while the ranks of the working poor and uninsured grew, and the top 10% of societies wealthiest saw their fortunes grow at an unprecedented rate. The work ethics and morals fostered by the wave of European immigrants began to erode, replaced by the ethics of the next population wave: the Baby Boomers. As the boomers aged, they affected every aspect of life in America – from early pressures on the infrastructure for housing and schooling, to the inevitable pressures on the health and elderly care industries. During the second half of the 20th century attendance in church continued to decline and voter turnout dropped to abysmally low rates. Americans were losing faith in the country's organizations and institutions and crime continued on an upward trend. At the same time, the average citizen became immersed in self-centered consumerism that favored the needs of the individual over the good of society. Feeding this frenzy was a stock market grossly inflated and falsely buoyed, turning many Americans into overnight millionaires – on paper. In hindsight we now understand that there was more flash than substance behind this market.

In the months prior to 9/11, the American public was often shocked and chagrined by the antics of their politicians. Former President Clinton just wouldn't seem to go away and the Gary Condit affair with the suddenly missing intern, Chandra Levy, saddened us. The 2000 Presidential election fiasco was constantly in the news and Bush critics continued with the bad jokes about his intelligence and his ability to lead. Americans were more concerned with what was happening on their favorite television show, or the latest gossip about entertainment or sports figures rather than events unfolding in their own country or around the world.

Elsewhere in the news, floods devastated Iowa, Virginia and southeast Texas; the Russian space station was falling from the sky, and Californians learned a new term, “rolling blackouts”. The economy and gas prices were on a roller coaster ride and one of our spy planes was forced to land on a Chinese island. For those of us not directly affected by these events, however, life went on much as it had for the past decade. We felt sorry for the flood victims but few of us did anything to assist them. Most of us found the election and political scandals little more than amusing because after all, “They're all crooked aren't they?” And while it was embarrassing that one of our spy planes had been forced down, it all happened quite far away didn't it.? Americans are generally uninterested in events happening beyond our borders and many would be hard pressed to find China on the map. Our perspective on the world was suddenly changed that fateful September morning.


A Liminal Moment

With the September 11th tragedy, the United States was thrust into a liminal moment. Historically, few nations are presented with the theological, societal and political opportunities that might result from such an event. The instantaneous slaughter of so many lives shocks civilized people; how can a human be capable of devising and implementing such an act? America was no stranger to death and war, as the twentieth century shows, yet the loss of life in those military conflicts was a slow and steady as the conflicts dragged on for months and sometimes years. But September 11th was unique in that it was not a military conflict – at least not in the traditional sense of one nation waging battle against another. The attack came from a handful of religious extremists intent on destroying our civilization for what were essentially differences in belief's – America was a secular nation and had to be converted to Islam. But Islamic fundamentalists were not the only ones guilty of America-bashing.

Less than a year before the September attack, America had been referred to as a “hyperpower” by a French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrinel, and as the sole superpower in the world at the time, this was just another way of calling us the world's bully. How should our leaders use this tragedy to take our nation to a higher level and improve our image in the world? Will this experience bring us closer as a nation. Will we, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, become a bastion for morality, character and civility to the world once again? Here was an opportunity for us to stand back and look at ourselves objectively to examine what we could improve about this nation, since no nation, no peoples are perfect.

Realistically, fundamental shifts in socio-economic and political theatres caused by such a tragedy are more plausible in small, almost imperceptible changes, such as the kind that might appear in mass marketing efforts as business tries to regroup and make a profit in a newly defined reality. As our national zeitgeist changed, we could posit that some of these subtle shifts will eventually filter down to the engines that drive big business in this country, and therefore have an impact on the method and madness. Given this supposition, might we not expect subtle changes in pre-and-post September 11th junk mail?


Let's Go To The Mail

To test that supposition, the 2001 and 2002 samples were analyzed in terms of volume and content. Given the volume of total mail collected (848 pieces), the following categories were created to simplify comparisons: Arts, Catalogues, Charity, Coupons, Credit applications, Magazine subscriptions, Prize Money, Retail, Services, and Travel. Each month's mail was counted and weighed by category. The Coupon category includes the standard packs of individual coupons (such as ValuPak), and the larger format plastic wrapped grocery store style coupon packages. The Services category includes mail for Auto, and Home repair, delivery, financial planning, and telecom services.

The 2001 sample contained 463 pieces of mail, weighting in at 35 pounds. Using a three-month average of 154 pieces, we can extrapolate an annual total of 1,848 pieces of mail, weighing 140 pounds. Three categories made up two-thirds of each monthly sample: Credit Applications, Retail, and Services, though only the Credit category showed the most consistency in volume from month to month. While this trilogy represented half of the mail received each month, it averaged a third of the weight, being overshadowed by the Coupons and Catalogue categories, accounting for two-thirds each month.

The 2002 sample contained 385 pieces of mail, weighing thirty pounds, seven ounces. Using the three-month average of 128 pieces we can extrapolate an annual total of 1,536 pieces of mail, weighing 122 pounds. As in the 2001 sample, the Credit, Retail and Services categories accounted for two-thirds of the mail, while the Coupons and Catalogue categories accounted for two-thirds of the weight.

Surprisingly, a comparison of both mail samples showed consistency in both content and distribution between categories. Though the 2002 volume was roughly seventeen percent less than the 2001 sample, the monthly distribution closely matches that of the 2001 sample. The Credit, Retail and Services totals remained within a few percentage points between the two samples, and retailers offered the same sales promotions and surprisingly similar pricing. Grocery store fliers maintained the same page layouts and featured items with pricing similar – or in some cases slightly lower -- in 2002 than 2001. Credit card applications in both samples exhibited the same interest rate fluctuations between suppliers, but with little change in the overall rates. Each credit sample also contained a similar number of envelopes and letters with urgency messages such as: 'return immediately', 'priority mail', etc.

Beyond the obvious drop in mail volume, there was little to differentiate between the pre and post- 9/11 junk mail. Advertisers leveraged the same textual and photographic metaphors and metonyms in each sampling. Most suprising was the lack of patriotic symbolism in the 2002 sample. Only one vendor included a card token bearing the image of our flag attached to the letter. Despite claims of profound societal changes in the months after the 9/11 tragedy, none of this change was reflected in the junk mail sample. One has to ask: is this a good or a bad indicator? Should we assume that there could be no place for the 9/11 tragedy in the happy land of junk mail? Or was junk mail quietly telling us that we hadn't changed at all as a people?


Who Are We Now?

As the dust clouds settled over Manhattan, it was impossible to predict the transformational effects of this event on America. Perhaps even more significant would be the differentiation between the effects on the 'nation', versus the effects on 'the household'. At the nation level, some changes were immediately apparent. A president once vilified was suddenly transformed into a leader of a country under attack. His speeches, once described as homespun and colloquial, became inspirational and comforting as the White House blended tough talk with reflections on faith and virtue. Congress, as it typically does in times of national disasters, put partisan politics aside and rallied behind a President intent on bringing the terrorists to justice. From coast to coast, citizens flew flags from businesses, homes and vehicles in an outpouring of patriotism. Today, however, as we stare down the throat of a war with Iraqi in 2003, the President is once again vilified, and Congress has slipped back into partisan politics.

"...there was little to differentiate between the pre and post 9/11 junk mail..." On the household front, in the year that followed, the pervasive display of the our flag now seems like no more than a knee-jerk form of patriotism. When interviewed shortly after the tragedy, 97% of those interviewed said that volunteerism was a good idea, but only three percent of us had done anything about it. In the media, numerous child kidnappings and killings across the country abounded, and a sniper spread fear along the East Coast. After the death of thousands in New York, we were still killing each other. For all but a small percentage of us near the attack zones, the horrors of the events in Washington and Manhattan were distant and impersonal. How often did you hear, “It seemed like I was watching a movie?” Though we were all saddened and shocked, we could not directly identify with and personalize the true impact of what happened because it did not occur in our own town or backyard.

Can we really blame our politicians or ourselves for allowing our anger to cool towards our enemies and return to the status quo of life? This is not callous complacency at work, but human nature. There is a pattern in history that highlights a moral entropy in human affairs and it seems impossible for the next generation to maintain the civic and moral intensity of a great previous generation. Indeed the generations that fought both world wars and survived the Depression can be viewed as great – though they themselves likely did not think so – they were just living a life, just being an American. Can today's Americans say that in merely living our lives, we are exemplifying such greatness?

America is a patchwork quilt linking a myriad of people and institutions that despite their differences, continue to build upon the concepts defined by our nation's founders – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what defines someone as an American? Given our ethnic, economic and religious diversity, it could be argued that we hardly know ourselves. Yet, regardless of our backgrounds and personal beliefs, every one of us instinctively knows what it means to be an American. “Being an American” is a psychological, emotional and philosophical construct based not on blood and birth rite, but on the fundamental belief in the grace and dignity of human life, and the respect of the human mind as an independent life, rather than a life controlled by dogma. Being, or becoming, an American is ultimately defined as embracing this set of ideals. This has subtle yet significant repercussions. Anyone can become an American, yet a person could move to France or Germany and live there for decades without ever becoming “French” or “German”. The very term “un-American” underscores this distinction. Being un-American is not about birth rite but about rejecting a certain perspective on what comprises a meaningful life .

Beyond 'hyperpower' status, military might, cultural hegemony and crass consumerism, there exists a metaphysical zone where the elements of federalism, theology, morality, capitalism, political ambition and personal freedoms all merge together to create the human condition we call 'America'. As such a metaphysical entity, 'America' is a conceptual reality almost certainly impossible for outsiders to understand, particularly for those living in dictatorial, totalitarian, despotic or religious fanatical societies. The terrorist attacks against us where done by individuals with a strong belief in a fantasy ideology, and as such executed the attacks not to prove something to us, but to themselves and their followers. In this fantasy ideology, the individuals in those buildings were just props in a Islamic fundamentalist play designed not to force us to change our policies or perspectives, but for the effect on terrorism itself. In this fantasy ideology suicide is not a means to and end, but an end in itself.

Have we changed in the aftermath of the tragedy? On the larger scale, a new layer of government , the multi-level national security alert program, and security at sports events and airports are hard to miss. At the household level, however, little has changed across the America. We still love our sports, hate our politicians, pay bills, buy food, cart the kids to after school functions, watch “reality” shows, have a beer with friends, and if we're lucky, have a moment during the week to relax. We simply continue to live our lives just as we have done for decades. Is that a bad thing -- living a life -- an American life? If life in America is akin to a railroad, the tracks that allow us to roll along are forged from democracy, virtue and stubbornness; the railcars are our dreams, desires and possessions; and the engine that powers that train is capitalism.

Capitalism in itself is neither good nor bad. Capitalism never promised to extinguish poverty, hunger or inequality; it simply provides a means within a society for people to believe that if they work hard they will be rewarded. The union of capitalism and democracy is responsible for the innovation and expansion of America and its philosophies in the twentieth century. Of course while we may all be equal in the eyes of capitalism, some are more equal than others; a society based on capitalism is not the perfect societal model, but it does highlight the positive role of business, private property and the resulting responsibility and freedom of human creativity.

Is the similarity between the pre-and-post 9-11 junk mail samples simply a consequence of capitalism? Or is it a fundamental requirement of our society based on the precepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? In the days following the 9-11 tragedy, our President encouraged all Americans to live their lives as they had always done; to do otherwise would allow the terrorists to succeed. In the metaphysical realm of American life, junk mail may be the ultimate avatar in response to that request.