Are you the kind of person who opens and responds to direct mail appeals?  

If you’re anything like my clients, you’d probably answer that question with an emphatic “no.”  I’ve lost count of how many times people have told me that they’re “not the audience for direct mail.”  They act as if direct mail donors form some exotic lost tribe of the Amazon, like the Kayapo people of the donor community.

This is reinforced by decades of market research that purports to paint a vivid picture of the donor and the donor’s native habitat.  They skew older.  They skew female.  And so on. In short, we have seen the direct mail donor, and it is not us.  Our job in managing a mass-solicitation program is to write with some idealized donor audience in mind—perhaps someone a bit like your grandmother—and content ourselves with what we can get from what’s seemingly a niche market.

There’s some truth in all this, of course. But are direct mail donors really so different from the rest of us? 

As marketing and fundraising professionals, it’s tempting to think that we’re immune to the tricks of our trade, that we’re smarter than the average bear. But are we, really?

It’s easy to go through life thinking we’re rational, and the people around us are too. This baseline assumption of rationality undergirds many of our institutions.  Our democracy assumes people can reach rational conclusions about the candidates, and our economic system assumes people can reach rational conclusions about how to spend their money. From this standpoint, the great unwashed who aren’t rational are the exception—and they’re the audience for direct mail.

But did you ever consider that perhaps the joke is on us?  That our own reason isn’t as sound as we think it is? 

That’s exactly what’s posited by a contrary school of thought that raises the prospect of limits on human rationality. In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote to Alexander Pope of “the falsity of that definition animal rationale,” and asserted that mankind was “only rationis capax [capable of reason].”

More recently, Herbert Simon wrote of “bounded rationality” and the inherent limits on what the human mind can ever know or figure out.  Friedrich Hayek wrote of the “fatal conceit” that any individual or group of individuals could ever understand the full complexity of a modern society. Behavioral science suggests that these limits are real, and that our own rationality is much more of an illusion than we realize.

The godfather of behavioral science is Daniel Kahneman, one of the very few non-economists to ever win a Nobel Prize in that discipline. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the workings of the brain in ways that map closely with what Swift hypothesized nearly 300 years ago—a brain that’s capable of reason, but remains largely on a continuous, unthinking autopilot unless circumstances jolt the rational faculties into action.  He describes this using the metaphor of System 1 and System 2.  He characterizes these two systems as follows:

“--System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

  --System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

System 1 is our default state, and it’s designed to make sure we don’t die as we go about go about our day.  System 1 is operating when you’re not thinking about much of anything in particular, and grabs your attention whenever it senses danger in the environment.  It’s the driver of our intuition, gut instincts, quick reactions—the mental state we experience when driving along an open road, the immediate sense of fear we feel when we encounter a bear or a rattlesnake in the woods, or the sense of arousal at the sight of an attractive mate.

System 2 is our rational brain—the side that’s operating when we do long division, edit a document, or perform other tasks that require focused cognitive strain. System 2 is our inner EU bureaucrat that cares about recycling, income inequality, and existentialist philosophy.  It represents our better angels.

Or so it seems—System 2 is really just a lawyer to System 1, justifying our underlying survival instincts as “normal” and “rational.”  System 1 is always lurking in the background. 

When we tell ourselves that “we’re not the audience for direct mail,” we’re speaking from the standpoint of System 2—the standpoint of people who think about persuasion every day for a living.  System 2 is our proverbial BS detector—and as professionals in this area, we know that all persuasive writing is all just BS artistry to some extent.

Good direct mail works because it avoids System 2 completely.  Notice the heated rhetoric, the emotional appeals, everything designed to provoke an immediate visceral response.  It’s an assault on System 1. 

System 2, in contrast, is slow to anger—but it hits hard.  If the reader’s BS detector boots up, you’ve lost.  It doesn’t matter how rational or logical your argument may be—if the reader doesn’t buy it, no amount of pleading will work.  That’s because System 2 is really just doing the bidding of System 1.  The brain is all about instinct, not reason.

Direct mail works, but just why it works strikes many people as a mystery.  But it’s really no mystery at all.  The things that make it work—appeals to survival, appeals to social standing, appeals to authority, and so on—are hard-wired into human nature.  Those things aren’t going away.  Learn to master System 1—the raw survival instincts that drive our “rational” decision-making to a surprising and shocking degree—and you can learn to master the elusive craft of direct mail.


 American Philanthropic provides strategic consulting and fundraising services for nonprofits, including direct mail management.  If you are interested in learning more about our direct mail services, feel free to get in touch with us. We offer our direct mail clients an unparalleled level of customized service, coordinating the entire production process from start to finish. 

Moreover, we stand out for putting the interests of our clients first. That means we don’t charge by unit, and instead employ a simple fee structure that contains no surprises. It also means that our clients retain rights to all the creative elements of their work—including copy. Learn more at