A New Ad Campaign Won't Save the U.S. Postal Service

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The United States Postal Service is having a hard time finding a new ad agency to take on the challenge of making snail mail seem cool again—and for understandable reasons. Since it last inked a deal with agency 13 months ago, the USPS has owned up to the fact that it's bleeding money and not just because it's a huge, inefficient government agency. People just don't mail as much stuff [PDF] any more, and we doubt a new ad campaign is going to change that. "I don't think advertising can do a whole lot at this point," a consultant told AdWeek of the USPS's ad strategy on Monday. "They've got so many issues, [the ad campaign review] is almost akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Convincing people to buy stamps and drop things in mailboxes is not a new challenge for the USPS. Since it started selling stamps in the 1840s, the agency has been forced to innovate in order to serve the growing nation, and they were pretty successful for a nearly two centuries. First came the jump from postmen on horseback to the U.S. Mail Steamship Company and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Then came the Railway Mail Service, Air Mail Service and most recently various Express and Priority Mail Services. In between, there were all kinds of renegotiations of what the post office could do including but not limited to passport services and banking services for immigrants. This was all going well until the invention of the Internet, when email started hacking away at the USPS's revenue. Competition from folks like UPS and FedEx didn't help, and now people are wondering if we need the Postal Service at all.

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Enter the influence of advertising. In some shape or form, U.S. Postal Service ads have always focused on boo-hooing the Internet. That or they just ignore that the Internet is a helpful way of sending information from one place to another. And since they can't own email, the USPS has historically twisted its advertising message into a narrative about how the mail is somehow better than the email. Its most recent ad campaign could not have been more blunt with that message. Launched last year, it focused on information security, something that the Internet just isn't very good at evidently:

A decade ago, it was intimacy the U.S. Postal Service was selling. At that point in time, you could email a holiday greeting. But if you wanted to really make that special someone feel special, well, only the mail can deliver that message.

Back in 1992 when the World Wide Web was still young, the ads felt more service-oriented. The USPS wasn't just there to help you mail things, suggests the commercial starring "Mrs. Robinson." It's an information resource, too, just like the Internet phonebook!

In 1990, you had the "We Deliver For You" series -- the USPS looks so efficient and helpful!

The jingles are catchy and darnit we did tear up a little bit over that holiday greeting card ad. That doesn't mean we're going to stop emailing people. We'd like to think that the USPS has whipped up some crazy new innovation that will stop us from walking across the street to FedEx, when we need something delivered, but based on the most recent report from the Government Accountability Office, they're still just planning on closing down a lot of post offices and laying off a bunch of postal workers. Maybe that will help. Another heart-warming television commercial, we're afraid, almost certainly will not.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.