Do You Flip Out Over Junk Mail?

A couple of weeks ago, Wired editor and The Long Tail author Chris Anderson got so fed up with receiving pitches from clueless (or lazy) publicists that he screeched out in protest, permanently banning said publicists from his in-box and, to the delight of some onlookers, publishing their e-mail addresses on his blog in a spammer-friendly format. Reaction to Anderson’s move was noisy, and mixed: see here and here for samples.

Now comes word that Tim Page, a Pulitzer-winning music writer for the Washington Post, flipped out even more aggressively, albeit with tighter focus. After receiving a press release about former D.C. mayor Marion Barry‘s views on an area hospital, here’s what Page wrote to Barry’s aide:

“Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new — and typically half-witted — political grandstanding? I’d be grateful if you would take me off your mailing list. I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that would interest me in the slightest, up to and including overdose.”

I am a fan of both Tim Page and Chris Anderson, and I too sometimes feel the urge to vent as they both vented. But, as in many cases in life, venting ends up punishing the venter more than the ventee.

The interesting question to me is this: why is it so easy to throw away a piece of paper junk mail, while junk e-mail so inflames the passions?

My favorite thing about e-mail is its efficiency. I get about 300 e-mails a day, and don’t have much problem isolating the 20 or 30 I care about; it is really easy to get rid of the rest either systematically (between Earthlink and Eudora, I have good spam filters) or just by clicking that wonderful little “Delete” button.

I have a much bigger beef with junk snail mail than I do with junk e-mail: it is far more costly and wasteful. I probably throw away about five pounds of junk snail mail, unopened, every week. Most of it catalogs. I get pretty unhappy when I think about all the resources consumed in designing, producing, and delivering all that mail that goes straight into the trash can.

By comparison, I don’t have many complaints about having to use the virtual trash can on my computer (er, I mean, on my LifeLine).

(Hat tip: Romenesko.)

Richard Hare

I mark all unsolicited snail mail "Return To Sender", circle the return address and draw a large arrow pointing to it, then drop it into the postbox on my way to work.


Here's a good website to get you taken off of catalog lists for catalogs you don't want:


I've been using Catalog Choice for a couple months now, with seemingly little in the way of results. I continue to receive catalogs that I've already declined, as evidenced by the fact that I can't add them to Catalog Choice - it tells me I've already done so.

Just recently, I received an email from them that seemed to indicate that they weren't processing things automatically, but in lumps over time. If that's the case, the service is far less useful than I'd hoped.


I just call the companies whose catalogs I don't wish to receive and ask them to take me off their mailing list. It has always worked for me.


I hope by trash can you mean recycle bin. :)


Paul, it takes time to stop getting catalogs even if you call customer service directly. Your request is processed in batches, whether you use Catalog Choice or not. So a couple of months is not sufficient to say it doesn't work. They certainly make the process easier.


Sorting through junk mail is often easier - it has big bold colors and other obvious signs that I can process without much active thought. Undesirable e-mail, on the other hand, often appears legitimate (or potentially so) until you open it up and start reading. Plus, it tends to show up in much greater bulk.


To address Paul's comment about how long it takes to stop receiving postal junk mail. Since catalog companies find it far more economical to use postal permits to bulk mail, they send catalogs out about 2-3 mail cycles ahead of a delivery date. So Xmas mail was most likely sent in September. Therefore even if your name is removed from a mailing list in September it will take 3-4 months for it to clear the USPS system.

At we have been helping consumers protect their privacy by opting out of postal junk mail since 2001.

Margot at



I think people get mad at email because they know it cost the sender virutally nothing yet costs them their time. Junk snail mail at least costs the sender something.


It's about the numbers.

If you only get 300 emails a day, you're in good shape for someone with as visible a web presence as yours. Many people get thousands upon thousands of emails per day, and one of them *may* be worth reading. It's like finding a needle in a haystack. But, you'll never get so many junk items in snail mail that you can't find the letters that you actually need to read.

Economically, the difference is barrier-to-entry. The reason why you only get a few junk snail-mails a day is because postage limits the mail to "honest" outfits that can sell something useful. They need to earn enough revenue from the resulting sales to exceed the cost of the mailing.

On the other hand, email is free. Once you're on, the cost of sending a million emails is no different than the cost of sending one, which is practically free. If you spam the world 500 times over, one sale to some moron that didn't know better makes the whole exercise worthwhile. Some thinkers from Microsoft once proposed that there be a micro-charge assessed for email delivery to help combat this. Obviously, people balked, since no one wanted to pay anything per email when they're already paying for internet access to begin with.

One more interesting economic note: For business-based email, the cost of spam is actually borne by the company's IT department. This impacts the market in a bigger way than a lot of people realize.



I think the reason snail mail isn't as annoying to most people is a question of volume.

As a public figure, you probably get a lot more junk mail than I do. 5 pounds a day is outrageous. Personally, I get maybe 1 or 2 junk letters a day via snail mail.

Nowadays, I don't get much spam e-mail because of spam filters. But a few years ago, before the technology caught up, I would sometimes receive as many as 200 junk (spam) e-mails in a day. Finding the 1 or 2 e-mails I actually wanted to read in all that mess was painful and time consuming. And there was always a danger that I would accidentally delete an e-mail I really wanted to read because I didn't instantly recognize the address or the subject.


Clearly you need to read

Here's a sample of why email spam is worse than junk paper mail:

1) It costs the sender near enough to nothing so it is sent out in enormous quantities compared to paper. You guys hate externalities, no?) A million junk emails a minute and the really big spam servers aren't even breaking a sweat. The cost is borne by the intermediate and the destination IT infrastructures. Every recipient must maintain enough bandwidth to hold up to the firehose of spam, or else the eyedropper of legit mail will not get through.

2) Most spam is now sent by botnets (q.v.) and therefore are the product of criminal activity.

3) That criminal activity remains popular because there are still enough morons who will click on the links in the spam to make it so. Either they spend money or they get hit with a trojan that causes their PC (and their internet bandwidth) to join the botnet and send even MORE spam. Paper mail campaigns must be well-targeted, they will lose money if they don't get a 3-5% sale rate. Spam campaigners don't give a fig, they only need something like a 0.0002% click rate to be successful.

There's more, lots more. And of course, the CAN-SPAM act that went into effect in 2004 made it worse, as we in the Info Security biz knew it would. Last month one of my clients' spam filtering setups stopped over 60 million emails. It typically stops 150-200 per week that are heading for me, and my address is not on any public web pages....

When paper junk mail can reach into your home and subvert your appliances to the ends of the sender, or drain your bank account, maybe then it will garner some of the same hatred rightly heaped on Spam.



I have a theory on this. Note that it applies to only personal email, not work email or whatever else.

When email first came around, people (myself included) were really happy to receive messages from friends, family, etc. Seeing that there was new mail was exciting because you didn't know who it was from or what it was about until you opened it. It's the modern equivalent of checking the mailbox everyday for a letter from someone.

I don't think that that emotion has really gone away, even if it has decreased substantially as email became more commonplace. Nonetheless, if anyone says they don't get even a small kick out of getting an email from a friend, they're lying. But when you find out that it's an email about cheap Viagara and not one from your best friend, you are disappointed and become angry.


Chris' main problem is that the messages aren't classic spam (of the herbal/mortgage/etc variety). They were not bulk, just unwanted, but on (general) topics that he is interested in. A good spam filter won't (and shouldn't) catch them. Since the message is on a general topic he's interested in, he'll spend more time figuring out the context, and if the message is really interesting.

On the snail junk mail v spam, I think people are annoyed with spam because they have their email client open all day. You only deal with snail mail once or twice a day -- they are very concentrated times. It's death by a thousand cuts.


I recently found this web series: Off the list.


I'm trying to get rid of junk mail (hard copy and digital) right now. I moved seven months ago and I cannot figure out how some of these organizations (like Planned Parenthood) got my new address at all. I've been calling up and firmly asking to be taken off all lists for each piece of junk mail, which seems to have made some difference. Worse is the mailings from my high school and university--no matter how many times I tell them I will not be donating money and to quit contacting me in anyway, I get a letter usually once a month or so.

I corresponded with some idiot on Freecycle who ended up not showing to pick up the stuff they wanted, and they've now added me to their email forwards list. Even worse, some of their FRIENDS are now sending me forwards (I guess hitting "reply all" to the initial forward). Some people have no sense at all.


Just so its on the record here, Marion Barry is a sitting city councilmember in DC (not just a "former mayor" as stated here), and Tim Page is a Washington Post reporter, so I guess I'm not sure why he would be "outraged" at receiving a press release from an elected official in the first place. I thought part of the point of being a politician was to send out useless press materials, and part of the point of being a journalist was to read them...

Maybe its a little off topic here, but Ward 8, which Barry represents, is somewhat atypical even in the limited scope of DC politics. What Page deems "half-witted political grandstanding" is probably a bit more tactically nuanced than the music columnist would like to admit, and, frankly, I think his reaction is a symptom of the Post's generally snide attitude toward DC officials (and, for that matter, their resulting ineptitude in covering local politics). If its true that Marion Barry is JUST a washed up dope fiend, well, why does DC keep electing him to stuff?


Jack Nelson

Some people do not mind receiving direct mail advertisements; others don't. I am among the latter in that I would like to decide which advertisements I receive.

Use of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) preference services to opt out of mailings is somewhat successful but not all advertisers belong to the DMA. Many of these nonmembers are the ignoble companies that you want to eliminate the most. Too, the DMA preference list is a blanket application. The mail customer may not want to stop all advertisements, just certain, select pieces of commercial advertising. The DMA also charges $1.00 for this service whereas critics say this service should be free.

By law, the Postal Service “disposes of” (translation: trashes) all unwanted third class mail - now called "Standard Mail (A)" - that you mark "refused" or "return to sender." Nearly all advertisements are third class/Standard Mail - also called "bulk mail." So, if you want to be eco-friendly, this method is not an option.

Here's a method of stopping unwanted direct mail advertisements from entering your mailbox – and it's environmentally correct. All the information can be found on the internet but it is hard to find in one place. Don't look in any postal regulation as you won't find it there – as it applies to normal direct mail.

The procedure is the only method I can find for stopping unwanted mail at its source where you are not required to pay money other than postage, you don't have to join a club, it is selective in nature, and it is 99.999 percent effective.

Federal law (Title 39 USC § 3008), states that if a postal addressee who receives an unsolicited advertisement offering for sale matter that, in the addressee's sole discretion, is “erotically arousing or sexually provocative,” may, by completing PS Form 1500, obtain a prohibitory order from the Postal Service (USPS) directing the mailer of the advertisement to refrain from mailing further material to that addressee.

The key phrase is " the addressee's sole discretion...” For example, if a pizza advertisement or a pre-approved credit card offer strikes you as sexually provocative, you can use the Prohibitory Order process to stop the mailings.

Should the mailer continue sending mail after receiving the USPS Prohibitory Order, the USPS turns the matter over to the United States Department of Justice for prosecution.

While the law was originally intended for sexually explicit, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its decision - Rowan vs. U.S. Post Office Department, 397 U.S. 728 (1970) - ruled that the law under Title 39 USC § 4009 (now 39 USC § 3008) includes ALL unwanted commercial mail. Thus, Form 1500 is no longer used just for sexually explicit or provocative mail - although it still reads as such.

Unfortunately, because the law and Prohibitory Order process are still difficult to grasp by many citizens, there is need for more detailed guidance.

Nevertheless, do not be intimidated by the instructions, the form or the law.

If you receive unwanted advertisements and you no longer want to receive them, simply click below, print out the form and instructions, fill in the form, and mail it to the U. S. Postal Service at the address shown below - along with the advertisement.

Do not be confused by the letter's wording - it all relates to sexual mail that you decided you did not want. Just think of your unwanted advertisements as sexually explicit mail.

Obtain PS Form 1500 and the instructions for completion here:

Action Steps:

1. Open the advertising envelope or wrapper (if there is one), take out all the contents and attach everything to the form. The USPS WILL NOT accept unopened envelopes or wrappers. Put all this into another envelope.

2. Make sure you put an "X" in Block 1. and write your initials next to Block 1. In the middle of the form put the mailer's name and address on the three lines indicated.

3. Send your completed PS Form 1500 and material directly to:

Pricing and Classification Service Center
US Postal Service
PO Box 1500
New York NY 10008-1500
Tel. 212-330-5300 FAX: 212-330-5330

Don't give the form to your postmaster as that office will only send it to the above address.

4. Mark your calendar about 15 days out from the date you mail your form. If you do not receive a response by the date you expect to receive it, start squawking. Call/FAX the above number.

5. If you don't get prompt service from these folks, report this directly to the Postmaster General at:

Postmaster General
U.S. Postal Service
475 L'Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20260-1000
Tel. 202-268-2020 FAX: 202-268-5211

6. The Postal Service gives the company a grace period of 30 days to stop sending you mail. If you receive mail after that (experience confirms you won't), open it and write on the envelope and its contents a statement that you received it and the date of receipt. For example, "I received this mailpiece on December 14, 2007." Apply your signature below your statement. Include a photocopy of your prohibitory order, if possible, or a notation of the order number and send the mailpiece to the address noted in paragraph 2., above.



A suggestion for dealing with junk snail mail: write "this is junk--do not send me your trash" and use the postage-paid envelope or card. The sender will incur the postage charge. If enough people do this, maybe it will stop (or at least slow down).

Stacy Pena

The easiest way to stop the junk postal mail you don't want but keep getting the marketing mail you do want is It's free, and the website gives you visibility into the many lists where your personal information sits so you can decide whether you want to stop all or just some.