Where do you draw the line between mail-outs that are
attention-grabbing and those that are downright bizarre? Danny Rogers
looks at what’s turning up in postal trays around the nation.
An increasing number of bizarre, imaginative, edible, entertaining, and
occasionally live, products are now finding their way on to journalists’
desks in a desperate bid by PR people to make their services or their
clients’ products stand out from the rest.
Youth marketing agency Red Rooster PR, for example, has mailed
everything from miniature paint boxes filled with semi-permanent hair
dyes to duo packages of extra strong ’dynamite’ sweets and extra strong
hair gel to journalists to promote its clients’ funky hair care range
And in-house departments can be just as creative. Channel 5’s PR
department came up with an ingenious way of inviting journalists,
producers and showbiz talent to the launch of the channel last
’The launch was on bonfire night and themed ’no smoke without fire’,’
explains PR manager Danielle Nay, ’So we placed a glittery silver ticket
in a long narrow packet designed in Channel 5 colours. We also included
a gold sparkler in the shape of a number 5 and a box of matches.’
Such was the success that at last week’s launch of Channel 5’s
programming schedule at the Oxo Tower in central London, Nay and her
team used an equally creative device to attract journalists.
They mailed out Oxo cube boxes full of Smarties mini-eggs, again in the
Channel 5 colours.
With such scope, distribution specialists come across quite a range of
mailings. ’We have sent out cheese, fortune cookies, garden gnomes, and
artichokes,’ says Laila Jay, marketing executive at distribution
specialists Two-Ten Communications.
Really? ’Oh yes and stress balls, toothpaste, doughnuts, four-foot high
Christmas stockings and Tutankhamun death masks,’ she adds.
Neil Shotton, group marketing manager of handling house Mailcom says:
’Promotional items have changed dramatically in the last few years. They
used to be relevant to the target market but now this is often not the
case . My view is that below-the-line activity is replicating
advertising, becoming wilder and wackier to grab attention.’
However Shotton believes the market is becoming saturated with the weird
and wonderful and expects a move back towards more conservative
Trisha Moon, managing director of long established consumer agency Green
Moon Public Relations says: ’We employ a whole range of different
A campaign may call for mailing straightforward products or it may
justify a more creative approach.’
She gives the example of a hair product that was mailed to beauty
editors with the theme of ’treat yourself to a night in’. Along with the
product Green Moon included a scented candle, a best-selling paperback
and some bed socks.
’I think you should pick a creative idea when appropriate but only as
long as you are providing the journalist with a real angle, something to
write about,’ she says.
Moon gives another example of a mailing she came across by the promoter
of a fragrance product who sent journalists an empty bottle of fragrance
along with some billiard balls. ’What’s the point in that?’ she quite
But why should public relations companies take on all this hassle
After all there are mailing specialists such as Mailcom, GWC and Brann
who theoretically can take the whole job off their hands.
’Our services are traditionally split into two areas,’ explains
Mailcom’s Shotton, ’There is the handling side which is the taking of
orders, processing, data capture as well as follow-up reports and
analysis. And there is fulfilment, which means the physical fulfilment
of a programme. Although nowadays the two are rarely split.’
However, Shotton points out that he would be unlikely to take on a
mailing job for less than two or three thousand items, which can make it
a dilemma for public relations professionals targeting a limited number
Although he does point out that by doing it themselves PR companies
retain the important ’courtesy element’.
’To be honest the odd job for an agency probably wouldn’t excite us,’
agrees Alan Halfacre, chairman of handling house GWC, ’But if it was
going to be a long-term partnership that would be more appealing.’
Halfacre says that creative mailings can be too easily trivialised by
agencies: ’Let’s face it, this sort of activity is not really what
public relations staff are for. I’m always very cautious to say we’re
creative but on the other hand when it comes down to making sure a
concept is possible we’re the practical engineers of the business.’
Angie Moxham, managing director of LeFevre Communications says: ’It’s
getting increasingly difficult to get coverage in this way. This is
because there’s so many bright public relations executives out there who
are getting better and better at attracting journalists’ attention.’
For this reason Moxham says LeFevre prefers to deliver products to a
limited number of journalists personally. However the agency doesn’t
compromise on creativity.
Last summer LeFevre launched a range of new dairy products for client
Anchor Foods by serving them up to the predominantly female staff on
women’s consumer magazines.
The cheese and whipped cream products were served up in a variety of
recipes by a hunky male dressed as a butler. ’He was gorgeous, and the
journalists loved it,’ says LeFevre account manager Annabel Dunstan.
And this year LeFevre went one better for its client the Oyster
On Valentine’s Day it arranged for fresh oysters to be delivered by
hand, taxi and courier to national food journalists and radio stations
which held tastings live on air. To add further spice they were
accompanied by other foods alleged to have aphrodisiac qualities and a
’hornometer’ to gauge their sexiness.
’If we are targeting the media we always do it ourselves,’ says Moxham,
’I still question the benefit of sending out loads of products. If you
tailor the campaign to the audience, you can use the opportunity to
explain the product. Handing distribution of product to a third party is
putting yourself in the lap of the gods.’
Alice Chan, account director at Lexis Public Relations agrees: ’Drink
products are notoriously difficult to distribute, particularly as many
alcoholic drinks should be served cold.’
For this reason when Lexis launched Gordon and Schweppes - a pre-mixed
drink in a can - last summer it chose to hire promotional staff to
deliver ice-cold cans from a cool bag. And it paid off. ’It was
gratefully consumed, particularly as on that day the temperatures were
soaring into the eighties,’ says Chan.
The use of creative devices to deliver the editorial message is, after
all, at the heart of the public relations discipline. The skill is in
finding an imaginative and appropriate delivery mechanism, then managing
it in such a way that journalists are truly inspired.
Special deliveries: Mail ordered publicity
According to Royal Mail guidelines, silkworms, meal worms, leeches,
caterpillars, maggots and fish fry may be posted if packed
Not that they will make particularly attractive promotional items.
However, according to its lively promotional literature, it does draw
the line at aardvarks, aerosols and arsenic.
Also out are compressed flammable gases, other living creatures,
corrosives (including dyes), adhesives, disinfectants, paints, toxic
substances and sharp instruments (unless well-protected).
There is a corporate leaflet published on behalf of the three companies:
Royal Mail, Parcel Force and Post Office Counters called ’Play it
Mail it Safe’, which provides guidelines on what can or can’t be posted
and those which are legal if packaged correctly.
Each company also has its own leaflet. Probably the most useful is the
Royal Mail’s Handy Guide to Postal Services. The Royal Mail will provide
specific guidance on letters and small packets, Parcelforce can be
called for advice on parcels. Alternatively local customer services
centres will provide information.
Maria Hudson, service conditions manager at the Royal Mail says: ’An
increasing amount of our mail now goes by air and since 1996 we have had
to comply with International Air Transport Association (IATA)
This has meant a tightening of rules.’
She says there was some controversy about Channel 5’s decision to send
fireworks through the post for its launch (see main text) - it seems
Channel 5 checked out regulations in advance, only to later find that it
had an old version of the rules.
Hudson says that the mailing of fireworks may still be legal but only if
packaged according to strict guidelines.
For particularly tricky items it is probably worth bringing in
specialist handling firms. Neil Shotton, group marketing manager at
Mailcom talks about the headache of delivering Bonsai Trees for one
client which involved hand delivery of specially made boxes that had to
be kept the right way up. ’They were the most delicate thing we have
ever delivered,’ says Shotton, ’We also had to insure each one to the
value of pounds 95.’
Handling and distribution houses, closely geared to the PR industry,
such as Two-Ten Communications and PIMS are well-placed to advise on the
best means of distribution.
For higher volume work Two-Ten has a Marketing Support Services plant in
Yorkshire, but marketing manager Flora Hamilton says the more
specialised mailings tend to go through its customer services department
We like to get involved at the planning stage,’ says Hamilton, ’then we
can give professional advice to clients on the best option based on
costings and likely complications.’
Mail-out turn-offs: The root of the problem
An unusual product landing on the desk of a target journalist can be a
highly effective means of raising editorial interest. But beware.
Creative mailings can equally backfire, with potentially damaging
Enter Scottish Life. Last July the Edinburgh-based insurance company, in
conjunction with London PR outfit Clarendon, decided to send 77 live
homing pigeons to journalists as a way of raising awareness of a new
offshore investment product.
The birds arrived in small boxes with instructions on how to release
them back to their owners and win a prize. But some journalists were
appalled with the concept of using live animals as a publicity stunt and
contacted the RSPCA.
The news wires were soon buzzing with, often inaccurate, versions of the
story. TV, radio and national newspaper coverage ensued.
Clarendon’s senior consultant James McDonald dismissed animal lovers’
outrage at the fact that the Daily Mirror’s bird had laid an egg in its
box. Owner of the pigeons Mrs Langley apparently advised that this was
normal and that it would be ’very nice cooked in butter’.
The upshot was that all the birds returned home relatively unruffled but
even McDonald had to admit: ’Press coverage hasn’t all been positive.’
And it left the question: Does anyone actually remember the product?
But this was not the only summer mailing cock-up.
In June below-the-line specialists Grey Direct were briefed to draw
attention to a Eurostar offer - one free standard ticket per first class
ticket bought. Grey’s creative team came up with the carrot as the ideal
representation of an incentive.
Consequently 50,000 fresh carrots were mailed to Eurostar’s database,
including a number of journalists.
Joanna Beard account manager at Grey Direct says: ’The response was
People really remembered it. Client research revealed a huge prompted
However the initiative will also be remembered for the wrong
Some people received mouldy carrots, prompting varying response of
distaste and amusement from the recipients.
And unfortunately for Eurostar it also generated considerable media
coverage as a stunt that had backfired.
’It was a misplaced concept,’ says Alan Halfacre, chairman of direct
marketing services company GWC, ’If a pristine carrot was received
you’re delivering the right messages, if it’s a shrivelled up carrot
you’re saying: ’I’m a tacky supplier’.’
Would Joanna Beard do it again? ’Personally no,’ she laughs, ’It
continues to haunt me. It was also a complete nightmare trying to insert
the carrots into the boxes.’