Brassed off with Brassed Off Britain

Devotion to duty is one thing, masochism another.

On the other hand, an extreme case of the screaming habdabs, if self-induced, would break the conditions of my insurance policy.

All of which is a way of admitting I couldn't bring myself to watch all 13 episodes of the BBC's Brassed Off Britain. Sitting through the final programme, plus those on 'junk mail' and call centres, was quite enough.

For those who lacked the courage to watch even these, the final result was that junk mail, the banks, and call centres, in that order, were voted the most irritating services in Britain. All within a percentage or two of each other, and way ahead of other contenders such the railways, estate agents and car retailers.

As someone who has done his share of insulting the DM sector, I had to admit I've never reached the heights of hysteria achieved by presenter Matt Allwright in his attack on junk mail.

It included an interview with a Scottish pensioner whose life savings have gone to people targeting her with offers to claim non-existing lottery prizes on her behalf, for a fee - not direct marketing as we normally think of it, but straightforward criminal activity.

He switched straight from there to reminding viewers of the number to call to vote for junk mail as the country's worst service industry. As neat a piece of emotional propaganda as you could ever hope to see. I was lost in admiration.

But here's a funny thing. While, admittedly, it would have been difficult for the whole series to maintain the same hysterical pitch, the call centres programme struck me as a reasonably responsible documentary. Allwright went to India, presumably to mock, but came back impressed by its emerging call centre industry.

Like so much TV, the series tried too hard to entertain and be funny while tackling a serious subject. Some of the criticism was unfair, but the BBC was right to say that a lot of service industries, including DM, need to raise their standards. A lot.

And it's no coincidence that direct mail, the banks, and call centres came out as the most hated. They're linked. Financial services are by far the biggest users of direct mail, and very probably of telemarketing, too.

There can't be many people whose lives are blighted by badly targeted direct mail, but there are plenty who find it irritating. Allwright said the credit card companies are happy if one mailshot in a thousand leads to someone taking out a new credit card. If he's right, that's pathetic.

The industry needs a tougher code of conduct. How about a provision that potential customers who don't respond to the first three mailshots should be removed from the mailing list?

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