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A Reader columnist goes RedPlum crazy

The scourge of a pink-wrapped ad rag

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When perturbed property owner Amy Little identified herself as an environmentalist, I urged her to think twice about RedPlum/Local Values, the pink-wrapped ad rag she abominates and has now gone to court to be rid of.

Look at it this way, I told Little. These are dire times for traditional newspapers. They're shedding pages right and left, and some have disappeared altogether. If the demand for newsprint collapses, then what becomes of the vast Canadian forests from which the pulp is made? They become dangerously overgrown, that's what! Unless you're cool with raging fires that could leave half of Quebec a smoldering ruin, you should welcome alternative markets for the pulp. Say what you will about RedPlum/Local Values, you can't deny its pulp content.

Little had not thought along these lines before, and I'm pretty sure she has not thought along them since. Her view of RedPlum is the classic NIMBY. Not in my backyard. Or, in this case, front yard. Or stoop. Or any of the other areas around and about the apartment houses she owns in Chicago where the RedPlums wind up in soggy heaps.

"I have ten or 11 properties around the city, including Logan Square," explained Little, who lives in Oak Park. "I must spend at least an hour every week cleaning up the RedPlums, throwing them in the back of my Prius, and painstakingly separating the plastic from the paper. That's what you're supposed to do. I happen to be an environmentalist, and I can't just throw them out. You're not supposed to throw them in [Oak Park's blue recycling bins] wet and you're not supposed to throw them in mixed, so it's just beyond belief."

Surely you have tenants who welcome the coupons and news of weekend sales that RedPlum brings them each Wednesday, I said. "I would be willing to bet no one reads those things—no one," said Little. "They should target their audience, which is probably people over 70. I don't know anybody who clips coupons who's under the age of 70." More RedPlums arrive each week at her properties than her properties have units, she told me, and if one or two of them, unbeknownst to her, actually wind up taken inside, many more wind up moldering in the grass and bushes. She told me about her six-unit property in Little Village where at least eight copies every week are left on the front stoop; the tenants, to avoid tripping over the pile, toss them over the railing into the yard and she has to climb over the railing to collect them. "So I'm risking life and limb to rescue these RedPlums so the building doesn't look abandoned. At another one of my buildings the snowblower got jammed with a RedPlum that was hidden under the snow."

I have my own stories to tell about RedPlum/Local Values, and I've told them in recent days on the Reader's blog, the Bleader. The throwaway is the product of a 2008 partnership between the Tribune, which contributed Local Values, and RedPlum's proprietor, Valassis Communications of Livonia, Michigan. Valassis specializes in direct mail communications, and its website makes the interesting boast that Valassis "is a leader in intelligent media delivery" and that it "precisely targets its clients' most valuable shoppers."

If you're a Tribune subscriber like me, this precise targeting has meant that you'd probably get RedPlum twice each Wednesday regardless of whether you wanted it even once. It would show up in your Wednesday-morning Tribune and get tossed onto your property Wednesday afternoon, along with everybody else's. The pink wrap carries the notice "For any service or delivery inquiries for this product please call 1 800 874 2863," and when I started calling that number, I found myself speaking with a series of affable young men and women named "Della" and "Edward" and "Alex" at a call center in the Philippines. "Good afternoon," they all said cheerily, though by my reckoning it was the middle of the night, and when I said I wanted RedPlum discontinued, they promised to get right on it.

These calls accomplished nothing. Of course, I was only at it a few weeks. Amy Little said she went to war against RedPlum about three years ago. She began by making telephone calls, which were answered by a recorded message before the Filipino phone room opened for business, moved on to writing letters to the Tribune, and then took a truly desperate measure. She called the number that you're only supposed to call if you're interested in buying an ad in RedPlum.

Where did you find that number? I wondered. "Inside the stupid RedPlum!" Little said. "I actually had to open it up!"

When that didn't work either, she consulted with a Logan Square attorney she knew, Michael Jaskula. He rounded up 24 co-plaintiffs and on May 9 filed a suit accusing the Tribune and Valassis of "trespass; public nuisance; and private nuisance." The suit alleges that RedPlum continued to be delivered to addresses whose owners repeatedly asked by phone and in writing that delivery stop, among them addresses "where the previous week's deliveries remain on the porch, lawn, sidewalk or other location, in plain view." These accumulating RedPlums were allegedly worse than just unsightly; they signaled to burglars "that the property is vacant or that the residents are out of town," and at least one home was burglarized for that reason.

Accusing the Tribune and Valassis of showing a "malicious, willful and wanton disregard" for the plaintiffs' rights and safety, the suit asks for a court order halting delivery and for $50,000 in punitive damages per plaintiff.

In my case, delivery of RedPlum ended after a Tribune official who read my blog posts e-mailed me and promised to personally intercede. Hoping to fix responsibility for the failure of the Tribune's suggested avenue of cancellation, I made another call to the Philippines. "We are constantly sending requests to cancel," insisted "Chad." "We get many a day. And we will do our best to notify our delivery teams about this ongoing problem." But as to why those delivery teams routinely ignored the notifications, he could not say. He volunteered to pass along my concerns to the Tribune.

A few days later the Tribune's "distribution representative" for my part of Chicago called to offer some sketchy information. She said various private delivery services distribute RedPlum under contract; "kids" could be involved; and subscribers who get RedPlum twice on Wednesday get it the second time by "accident." For that she blamed "human error"—the Tribune and RedPlum being distributed by different people. But why can't the Philippines fix the error? She could not say.

Little thinks she knows why. "Quite honestly," she said, "they may put [stop delivery requests] into a list for the local delivery people, but the local delivery people are illiterate. Why would they pay attention to that stuff?"

That's harsh. But her experience—like mine—is that the local delivery people don't pay attention. And she added one last detail to her tale of woe. Out in Oak Park, where she lives, they've just started delivering RedPlum.

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