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Online retailer experiments with junk mail you can't delete

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Between promoted tweets, unduly specific banner ads and a never-ending onslaught of marketing emails, it's impossible to escape targeted advertising. Luckily, though, the white noise of the internet can largely be ignored or hidden by ad blockers and spam filters. But what if paper and ink letters started falling through your door, encouraging you to buy that novelty mug you showed an interest in the other day? Well, that nightmare scenario is already a reality, and could become much more prevalent if a trial between Royal Mail and an online retailer proves fruitful (as far as they are concerned, anyway). The UK postal service and an unspecified retailer are currently experimenting with targeted advertising, delivered by snail mail, based on consumers' online activity.

To be clear, only registered users of the retailer who've agreed to receive marketing materials are at risk of being targeted. The letters they receive will be akin to email alerts, promoting individual or seasonal products they've previously expressed interest in. Royal Mail is also keen to point out it simply delivers the post, and that all customer data is held by the retailer. Jonathan Harman, chief of Royal Mail's direct marketing division, has previously talked up the potential benefits of postal campaigns for online retailers. "Sure, it's a lot more expensive per thousand than online display, but it may also be about 100 times more responsive."

Some of the junk mail we currently receive is "targeted" to some extent, of course. If you've ever spoken to your bank about a loan or a credit card, for example, then you can bet there was a brochure in the post before you even put the phone down. Still, we're sure Orwell would agree there's a slight difference between a tailored Facebook ad and a nod to your browsing history delivered to your door in physical form. And think of the trees, man. Think of the trees.

[Image credit: Shawn Gearhart/Getty]

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