Does effective direct mail tap into the subconscious?

As I write this I’m looking at a sample of a mailing I developed for a client in the mid-1990s. Designed for a major college textbook publisher, it promoted five psychology texts with titles such as Lifespan Development; Fifth Edition, and Human Development Across the Lifespan; Second Edition. The technique used in this piece is proven to boost response. It relies on a thoroughly researched phenomenon that these same psychology texts might have even mentioned in a chapter on the subconscious.

So you’d think the recipients of this mailing — all heads of psychology departments — would be immune to the ploy. They weren’t. This mailing, like the one produced before it for another text, broke sales records for the client.

This reminds me that we are all human. Which means poets still understand us better than scientists. We may think we know what makes us tick, but the fact is, our full operating instructions are yet to be published. We’re still discovering our secrets, and some of them are real corkers.

Marketers, for better or worse, are watching each new chapter of these psychology texts as they are written. We’re following this research with rapt attention. At least I — for one — can barely tear myself away.

Although the technique I’m about to describe has been well-documented, I’m going to posit a theory for why it works that I’ve not read elsewhere, and it could blow your mind. It certainly did mine, when I “connected the dots” and realized the clinical research that has been done on consciousness since the ’60s may have accidentally collided head on with a direct response trick-of-the-trade.

Direct Response Is Darwinian

Whether or not you subscribe to Darwin’s Origin of Species, you have to agree that in matters of both bacteriology and direct response, natural selection is real. Direct marketers “kill off” test mailings that don’t do as well — in fair competitions — as existing (“control”) mailings. In a similar manner, mutations of bacteria don’t get the resources that they need to reproduce when competing against existing, superior strains within a shared host. Both are examples of survival of the fittest.

I can’t speak for bacteria with authority, but I can about direct marketing, and this mailbox meritocracy means pieces you would guess should be as extinct as the dodo bird remain to sell another day. They survive because they are oddly, inscrutably effective in the return on investment they generate.

I’m thinking specifically of mailings that have such things as stickers that the reader must remove and affix, or cards that must be pulled from their perforated moorings and returned, or those clear, tinted plastic windows that must held to the eye to unscramble a message. All of these techniques require reader participation. Why do they survive? All of them use up valuable resources. None of these gimmicks are cheap to produce and distribute.

What if typical response rates for your offer are 2 percent? That means the response-boosting technique you test must get an incremental “lift” that pays fifty-fold its overall cost just to break even.

Do you remember the Publishers Clearinghouse mailings? Tightening sweepstakes laws and changing demographic trends have made these mailings less common — and some would say those that remain are a public scourge. But these mailings used the same technique that I used with that textbook mailing, and are still used for many other mailing categories.

My wife used to call the Publishers Clearinghouse mailings “grown-up busy boxes” — they required the tearing off of stamps, the moistening of them, and the affixing of them. Sometimes there were dozens of stamps. There were also other enclosures that readers needed to get a pen to fill out, for “another chance to win.”

It was all so much work! And so much expense!

In direct marketing there is a constant imperative to “cheapen the package” with every new version of a mailing you produce and mail. But the expensive complexity of tactile involvement (as I’ll call this henceforth) remains, because response rates always outweighed the cost. Why?

The Subconscious As Unruly Child

Some theorized, even before there was research to back it up, that our hands have a closer connection to our subconscious than to our conscious mind. It kind of makes sense. It’s not our “thinking” brain that allows us to win tennis games, or public debates. In most cases, the person who over-thinks — or insists on using conscious thought at all — loses.

So could the tactile communication used in many direct mail pieces be seducing our subconscious minds? Could this technique be sweet-talking our subconscious, at our mind’s “back door,” while our conscious mind is blithely keeping vigil out front?

Experiments that began 40 years ago suggested this very theory, when they discovered that signals from our brains to our hands to consciously move them actually showed up after the movement had been accomplished. Here is how the groundbreaking research, spearheaded by Benjamin Libet, was boiled down in a review of his book Mind Time: The temporal factor in consciousness by Steven Rose of New Scientist Magazine:

The core of Libet’s findings can be simply summarised. If I sit on the edge of my bed and decide to wiggle my toes, the brain processes necessary for the wiggling to occur begin about half a second before I am aware that I have made the decision. Libet finds this troubling; if the brain processes precede my sense of having made a decision, what part does my conscious decision making play? Who indeed is the “me” that does the “deciding”?

This is a classic research finding, but one that remains unchallenged — and unnerving! Where is free will in this equation? That question was posed anew by neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran MD, PhD in an episode of RadioLab, an outstanding science podcast series by National Public Radio.

When I’d first read about this work, I wondered why direct marketers weren’t jumping up and down with glee. They knew that their tactile engagement technique often worked against all odds, like ungainly bumblebees that aerodynamics engineers insist cannot fly but persist in doing so.

Here was our explanation!

Our subconscious minds reach the mailbox milliseconds before our conscious minds do. Once there, they tear into the mail and pretend to do our bidding. Until, perhaps one or two times out of a hundred, they pull a minor mutiny. They respond.

What happens when the conscious mind catches on? Interestingly, in research where subjects are actually watching their own brain scans, as their hands act unbidden, they invent reasons for doing what their hands just did. “I meant to do that all along!” they announce with a certainly that is belied by the timing of their actions. If anything, they simply invented a plausible rationalization.

Mr. Grabby In Room 415

Those who have brain injuries sometimes experience this more explicitly. I had read of these stories, but six years ago saw it for myself. Days after a dear friend had a stroke, his numb arm and hand rebelled. “He” grabbed objects (and passing nurses!) to his conscious mind’s horror.

Is it possible that the conscious mind — even in a perfectly healthy person —  is like a parent who wheels his child through a grocery store? With the parent oblivious to the child, the pair wend their way through the aisles. It is only when they arrive at the check-out that the embarrassed father sees the items in the basket that he never dropped in there, and rationalizes to the clerk why he’s purchasing them. “You can never have too many Animal Crackers!” he says as he stacks them nervously on the check-out belt.

The difference is we’ve been living with this unruly child our whole life, and our bodies have set some limits on what the kid can get away with (or thus goes Libet’s theory). This half-second-later override avoids a world of anarchy, where far too many nurses are groped. But this audacious behaviour of the subconscious is permitted — and instantly rationalized into something actually “intended” — enough times to boost the response rates of mailings that invite tactile improvisation.

Do we all have a Mr. Grabby waiting to help us open our mail? I invite those of you in the direct response industry to pipe in. Do you have an alternate suggestion?

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