Boston — A woman in the Boston suburb of Scituate - call her Cynthia - is used to getting lots of mail and found nothing startling about the pile of letters in her box the other day. But when she opened one of the pieces, something did startle her: an advertisement and order form for ``adult'' videos, complete with explicit sexual descriptions and a color brochure containing graphic photos of semi-nude figures in suggestive poses: 17 videos for $49 or 21 for $59.
``My first reaction was surprise,'' says Cynthia, a middle-aged widow who doesn't even own a VCR and has no idea why she was on the list. ``But I was also angry, because I thought it was against the law.''
Across the US, reactions like hers have become increasingly typical over the past six to eight months. Direct mailing of hard-core home video ads is the new wave in the old business of mail-order pornography. Amid pornography's new delivery forms - telephone, for instance, and computer networks - X-rated home video is a prime offender.
Although it is but a small part of the legitimate, mainstream home-video business, the mailing trend has several signs:
A surge in complaints about offensive, unsolicited ads cited by the postalservice and anti-pornography groups.
A growth in hard-core video sales.
A widening cross-section of people receiving such material.
Like Cynthia, many people assume mailing such ads is inherently illegal. But Phil Nater of the Postal Inspector's office in Washington, says, ``No, it isn't. The law is on the books specifically saying that you're not supposed to willfully place anything in the mail stream that contains sexually oriented advertisements. But the law is tied in to purchasing the mailing list. It's very, very complicated.''
Mr. Nater also says the law requires people in the business of sending explicit advertisements to place the words ``Sexually oriented material'' in bold type on the face of the envelope. Cythia's letter had this warning, but she overlooked it. ``I just thought it was a bill and opened it,'' she says.
Meanwhile, Nater reports, ``The X-rated video market mailing business in the US has definitely been on the upswing. There's more and more of it coming in unsolicited - ads with provocative brochures and pictorial displays. A year ago, we were documenting 4,000 to 5,000 a month. Now we're up to almost 8,000 or 9,000 a month - combination print and media - and the video part is increasing fastest.
``However,'' he hastens to add, ``we have programs in place to stop it.'' [See box on this page.]
The surge of mailings is confirmed by Steve Hallman, director of Citizens for Community Values, a local watchdog group in Cincinnati, Ohio. ``The number of complaints we've been getting about advertisements for home videos is incredible,'' he says. ``In the past three months, the volume has at least tripled or quadrupled. We have people in the greater Cincinnati area who have never been on any kind of list for sexually explicit mail, that all of a sudden about a year ago received mailers from these companies.''
The National Coalition Against Pornography also sees a rapid growth in the US X-rated video business. ``That's where the primary battle lines will be drawn in the months and years ahead,'' says Paul Mauer, assistant to the group's president.
Most adult videos sales are made not by mail but at video stores. A check with several adult video shops in Boston's ``Combat Zone'' suggests they are not an easy place for an individual to get on mailing lists. The proprietors are quick to disclaim any mail connections. ``We're not allowed to do any mailing,'' said one, who asked not to be named. ``You can't get on any mailing lists here,'' another asserted.
Then where do the lists come from? Even if the stores are cautious about mailing material, observers say some stores have sold lists of customers with a record of rentals and purchases to distributors. Furthermore, the rapid exchange of direct mailing and computerized lists among many businesses accounts for some of the jump in offensive direct mail: It's a proportional increase.
Sometimes lists are bought by video distributors who wish to sell directly to individuals, rather than to stores, the main market for adult video. ``The best way is to just send out to people and see who sends back,'' explains John Houlihan, a professor of business law who teaches courses on social responsibility at the University of Southern Maine. ``From the economic standpoint, if they're willing to offend 99 people to find the one who's interested in their product, it's still worth it to them,'' he says.
The practice is confirmed by Gene Ross, editor of Adult Video Magazine. ``There are a lot of fly-by-night companies which buy these products cheap and try to market them,'' he says. ``But the [more established X-rated] companies I know of do it upon request for the material.''
A spokesman for the company named on Cynthia's advertisement could not be reached by phone, but someone at another adult video distributing company on the West Coast - one of the largest in the business - spoke on condition that he and his firm not be identified. Without being told, he knew the source city of the ad. ``Those are run by some company out of New York,'' he said.
And though he recognized one of the video companies named in the ad as affiliated with his own, he asserted, ``Those are scams. The mailing has nothing to do with us. We don't even sell directly to the public, but to video stores. That outfit is sending to everybody in the United States they can get a letter to. They buy lists from just about anybody - might be people who go the grocery store and fill out a form for a free trip to Hawaii.''
Houlihan, whose own wife has received an unwanted adult ad, says, ``You can actually make money on the deal; that's what bothers me. If they send out 100,000 pieces and get a 1 percent response, that gives them 1,000 people they didn't know of before who might very well be willing to spend $100, $200, $300 over the course of a year - each. Pretty decent change. Problem is: It might even makes sense to them later to actually have a computer call up and say `Would you like to buy any sexual videos?'''
According to some analysts, video companies no longer restrict themselves to lists of VCR owners. Over 50 percent of US households now own VCRs, explains Paul Eisele, president of the Fairfield Group, a home entertainment market research firm in Darien, Conn.
``If you're a mail-order vendor, you're much more interested in a mailing list that has known `mail responses' than you are whether or not the people on it are VCR owners,'' he says, because many are bound to be VCR owners.
The Video Software Dealers' Association (VSDA), a large industry group, is not in the direct-mail business at all, according to Rick Karpel, who - among other things - advises store owners in trouble for selling adult material.
``No one in VSDA does that kind of thing. That's not our business,'' he says. He did not recognize the name of the company that mailed Cynthia's ad, but did knew one of the video producers - when the names were read off to him - as a member of VSDA.
``Once they sell their videos to someone, they don't know what people do with them,'' Mr. Karpel explained.
``Our members are video stores and companies that sell things to video stores.... They don't market products through direct mail.''
Then how do ads for members' products end up in Cynthia's mailbox?
``There are a lot of fly-by-night companies - what we call `Gypsy' distributors - who go out, buy up the product cheap, and then sell cheap. But a major adult product distributor does not ordinarily work through those kind of channels. As far as I know, that's a real small part of the business. Most of the X-rated business is done through stores.''
But what is VSDA doing to counter the problem?
``The position we take on X-rated material,'' Mr. Karpel states, ``is that store owners have to be very sensitive to their community standards and take them into account when making the business decision of whether to have X-rated videos in their stores.''
Ironically, the jump in complaints is happening despite a shrinking percentage of adult productions in the overall home video market, according to Mr. Eisele's figures.
As the mainstream video medium grows, adult fare has only to maintain its share to increase in volume.
``But we think the actual percentage is going down steadily,'' Eisele says. ``And we expect that trend to continue as good, legitimate product gets on the market.''
How to have your name removed from mailing lists for offensive ads
Phil Nater of the Postal Inspector's office in Washington says there are two forms to ask for at your post office:
Postal Service Form 2150: ``[We send] this one to specific companies. It tells them not to mail you sexually erotic material,'' he explains. It's the one you would fill out if you want to make sure you don't get further ads from a company that has already sent you one.
Postal Service Form 2201: ``Now you're saying: `I don't want ANY of this stuff coming to my home,''' says Mr. Nater. This form places your name on a list designed to keep you from receiving offensive material in general. ``And it further says that all mailers in the industry, by law, are required by law to purchase the list, to guarantee the nonreceipt of that material at your residence,'' he adds.
The post office provides ``a complete consumer protection package just on sexually oriented advertisement that tells the consumer what to do,'' Nater explains. ``The kit helps you decide which form or both you may wish to execute, with explanations and instructions.'' And the kit tells you how to inform the post office if you have filed the form(s) and are still receiving the offending material after a 30-day period.''
So far these steps have had mixed results in keeping people off lists. But it's the right way to begin. If adult ads keep coming 30 days or more after you've filed, taking the offending material to your local district attorney is another step.