Wientzen Embattled in FTC Free-For-All

(Direct Newsline) The direct marketing industry was put very much on the defensive Wednesday at a Federal Trade Commission forum on spam at which Direct Marketing Association president Bob Wientzen was booed.

The audience reaction occurred during an early morning question-and-answer session with industry representatives from a number of areas.

Wientzen pointed out that a yet-to-be-released DMA study found that 35% of consumers bought something when they were contacted by e-mail. But he was challenged by Laura Atkins, president of the SpamCon Foundation.

“The majority of the people who are buying are not buying based on unsolicited commercial e-mail, and to lump the solicited and unsolicited e-mail together is confusing the issue,” she said.

“There wouldn’t be solicited e-mail unless there were a way to reach these people,” Wientzen responded. Then boos erupted from the audience.

“There was a bit of a carnival atmosphere, and clearly the audience was populated by the zealots in this area,” Wientzen said in an interview later. “There wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy for any marketing view, and that wasn’t terribly surprising.”

The three-day forum, which began Wednesday, was kicked off by surprise speakers: the members of Congress who have recently introduced antispam bills or plan to. Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) talked about the CAN-Spam bill they introduced earlier this month. And Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) touted a bill she is introducing that would give consumers a bounty for providing information on spammers. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) appeared in a later session to speak about a bill he is about to introduce that contains a do-not-spam provision.

FTC’s Eileen Harrington, associate director of the division of marketing practices, who moderated the first session, asked participants whether they supported the Burns-Wyden bill and what their organizations were doing to address the spam issue. Wientzen said, “Having a best-practices concept [a Gold List of Reputable Players] signed onto by companies and individuals and having ISPs [honor the Gold List] could be done.”

Harrington said, “It could be that best practices are like fiddling while Rome burned.”

Wientzen also said he supported the Burns-Wyden bill. Others on the panel disagreed with him.

Christine O. Gregoire, attorney general of Washington, said the bill would not adequately protect consumers. “Why should we say to consumers, your life is being made miserable, but you have no recourse, you have to rely on the FTC and whoever else [to protect you],” she said. “It’s a good start.”

But that drew a retort from Wientzen. “If we become emotional and irrational here, we are likely to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “We think the Burns-Wyden bill is definitely the way to go. We don’t want to wait until we get a bill that deals with all of the problems.”

When Gregoire recaptured the microphone a bit later, she said, “I am passionate about consumers, and I don’t apologize for it.”

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