It’s hard for me to imagine my childhood without junk mail. I was a voracious reader, and that meant reading everything in sight, including the catalogues that seemed to turn up at our house every week. I read them at the dinner table, because I wasn’t allowed to read books during dinner. I wasn’t so much reading the junk mail as skimming, and sometimes I read it while watching my favourite shows, a respite from the relentless repetitiveness of TV ads.

Junk mail let me go on fantasy shopping sprees, to buy the books and the treats and the lipsmackers I wanted, because I knew my parents would never get them for me. I’d get excited by each bargain I’d manage to snag, and dreamed of the day I’d have my very own money to spend on anything I desired – no questions asked.

I haven’t had any junk mail delivered into my mailbox since I moved out of home. Every place I’ve rented has had a no junk mail sign slapped on its letterbox, and I’ve always felt like it wouldn’t be right to remove the sign just because I miss the paper catalogues. And I know junk mail isn’t a multi-use product – after reading a catalogue two or three times, it would most likely end up in my recycling pile.

My parents, however, still get an almost weekly delivery of unsolicited advertising material, and they diligently bring it into the house and read it instead of depositing it straight into the recycling bin. If I notice a wad of junk mail sticking out of the letterbox when I arrive, I always bring it into the house for them. I’m still drawn to the catalogues whenever I visit my parents, splashes of colour contrasted against the black and grey of the kitchen table. Over the years, this pile of catalogues has morphed according to the ever-changing openings and closures of businesses and their proximity to my parents’ house – Franklin’s was replaced by Woolworths, Crazy Clarks disappeared, Aldi catalogues started appearing after a store opened down the road.

I loved all kinds of catalogues – I remember clinging to one that would come with my monthly subscription of Scientriffic, lusting over a microscope that cost the princely sum of $50, a lot of money for a girl who didn’t start getting pocket money until she was in her late teens. I pored over the laptops in the JB Hifi catalogues, compared prices of each newly released iPod from store to store. Catalogues for bookshops were my favourite, as well as the Scholastic catalogues that came home from school every other month. I knew I’d have to settle for borrowing from them the local or school library, but I still liked to pretend I had the money and agency to buy and keep my own books.

At some point, for a reason that was never articulated to us kids, Dad decided to start delivering junk mail. Twice a week, Dad would drive down Beaudesert Road to a storage unit facility, and we’d help him load cardboard boxes full of advertising material – everything from Bunnings and Coles catalogues to single-page pamphlets crammed with Dominos and Eagle Boys deals. There’d usually be other cars there too, conduits between junk mail suppliers and numerous pockets of suburban south Brisbane, and there were times when we waited in a mini traffic jam to collect our goods. My sister and I were recruited to help him with the junk mail when we could – usually after homework and piano practice, in front of the TV.

We set up a supply chain in our living room, filling up boxes and bags with thick wads of folded catalogues. I didn’t mind doing this, because I got to read them before everyone else in the neighbourhood; I had been granted premium access to the latest bargains.

Dad would deliver some of them when we were at school, and we’d help him with the rest on the weekends. I remember coming across a news report that claimed other junk mail deliverers had dumped their allocated catalogues in bins or landfill, and wondering whether that would have been an easier way to go about it. But I know Dad would never have dreamed of cheating the system like that.

We delivered them before our suburb was flooded with new residential developments, when parts of the suburb were still filled with lofty trees and scraggly shrubbery. We walked, because neither my sister nor I knew how to ride bikes. I learned shortcuts between different streets, little secret pathways that opened up new areas of the suburb, pathways I still remember to this day.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realised that this is what other kids my age would do for real cash money. I’m sure Dad got paid for this work, but none of it went into our pockets – though truth be told, it probably paid for our cello and violin lessons. Our only tangible reward was time at one of the neighbourhood parks, especially if it was the big one on Gowan Road that had swings and a new-fangled rope climbing structure.

I don’t know that it was intended as such, but it turned out to be a great bonding experience for the three of us. Mum rarely accompanied us on these adventures because she was usually working, or too tired to come with us on lengthy sojourns around the neighbourhood after she’d been at work all day.

When I was little, Mum would cut out different products from junk mail catalogues to teach me the English names for things I already knew in Mandarin. I remember a blue-lined exercise book, filled with glued-in products, and mum’s careful writing underneath each one.

When I got my period, she taught me how to use pages out of junk mail catalogues to wrap up my used pads before putting them in the bin, and I genuinely felt lost the first time I had to dispose of a pad without a piece of junk mail at the ready. It became a double-use item – some light reading, and then a way to prevent the smell of uterine lining from permeating the shared bathroom. Nowadays I use period underwear, but I still remember the optimum way to wrap a pad, and the adjustments I’d have to make for pieces of junk mail that were thinner or wider than the norm.

Somewhere along the way, I also learned to make temporary folded boxes out of leftover pieces of junk mail. I used them to store all manner of things, from pens and pencils to lip glosses to USB sticks. I think I learned them from a friend during breaks in abacus classes, and before long, I was making them at school and in my mum’s practice while I waited for her to finish work.

Junk mail, like everything else, has made the transition into the digital world. Shopping online is akin to browsing a giant catalogue, with the added bonus that you can select anything you want and have it delivered to your door within days – or in some cases, within hours of checking out. But for those who like the formatting of ‘traditional’ junk mail, there are online catalogue portals like Lasoo, Shopfully, and Latestcatalogues. These websites and apps collate catalogues from all manner of companies, which means customers have access to all the junk mail they’d ever want or need. Myer has catalogues available in its own app, while Coles’ and Woolworths’ apps pipe discounted products straight into your feed, based on your previous purchases. Other apps allow you to add products to your shopping cart right then and there. Wishlist functions have replaced my fantasy shopping sprees, allowing me to now break my very real budget on things I might want but don’t need. Strangely, the cumulative total at the bottom of these wishlists sometimes turns me off buying any of it at all.

Despite the promotion of such apps, physical catalogues are still available. Clad in Perspex holders at the entrances to brick and mortar stores or sitting by the counter, they’re usually only a quick grab away while you wait for the self-serve machine to activate the card reader. I’ll pick one up every so often – I might only be at the shops to grab a snack or a bite to eat, and the catalogue might instigate a plan to get a head start on planning my grocery shop for the week, but it’s not the same. I’m already at the store for a reason, and why flick through a catalogue when I can just go online, or literally walk through the store itself?

COVID has made people even more wary of touching publicly accessible material, and most, if not all businesses have also needed to reorganise their priorities. The amount of junk mail from big businesses has already dropped dramatically over the past few years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if COVID has hastened this decline.

These sorts of changes had been happening, albeit incrementally, even before COVID. Stores like Coles, Woolworths, and Bunnings have pivoted from junk mail to magazines filled with recipes and DIY tips – part of a more subtle and sophisticated marketing strategy. While these are admittedly more browsable than pages upon pages of online material, it still seems like a waste of money and ink and paper. I understand that the point of these magazines is the same as junk mail, if a bit more oblique– get people interested in the latest Jamie Oliver or Curtis Stone recipe, and stuff it full of ingredients you can only get at specific stores. This strategy echoes that of the big fashion magazines, who used to raise more of their revenue from pages and pages of glossy advertising for high end brands than from subscriptions.

Interestingly, the target demographic for these magazines at Coles and Woolworths skews older – recipes and the like are hooks for adults, rather than the pages and pages of toys I remember from the junk mail of my childhood. This, then, seems to be another tacit acknowledgement of the changing times. Children these days are probably drawn to toys by endorsements from their favourite YouTubers or TikTokkers – and Coles and Woolworths have found a gold mine with the release of limited-edition plastic collectables. Still, I see these magazines – and indeed, junk mail in general – as indicative of a wider nostalgia for the physicality of direct mail catalogues.

Technology has not only allowed catalogues to be hosted online, but it has also added a sense of novelty to catalogue reading or browsing – just like it has with eBooks. It enables users to turn pages like you would if you were reading a catalogue in real life – but for me, at least, it doesn’t feel the same. This animation has become a simulacrum, a too-perfect way of turning a page. Paper doesn’t curl and flip in real life the way a page does on my iPad or my phone, and I continue to be irrationally annoyed by its fabricated perfection.

Marketing has changed, too. Instead of direct mail delivery into a physical letterbox, we get ads jammed into our social media feeds and before and after and sometimes even during YouTube videos. As annoying as these ads are, it’s easy to scroll past them, or to wait the five seconds before the ‘skip ad’ button pops up. This simply isn’t possible with junk mail – its bright colours and physical presence means effort is required for its disposal, making it harder to ignore. The popularity and ease of online shopping means an increasing number of businesses are competing for attention, and as annoying as physical junk mail can be, it doesn’t demand to be read or seen. In the past few days, I’ve started getting ads for the Tony Hawk Skateboarding games in my Twitter feed, despite the fact I don’t have even a passing interest in skateboarding or Tony Hawk. I can click the “I don’t like this ad” button, but this doesn’t remove advertisements altogether – it simply sends the algorithm on a mission to find something else I might be interested in.

The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) dives deeper into the corrosive effects of social media, especially as it pertains to advertising. Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, states succinctly, ‘if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product’. Advertisers, then, are the real customers; we the users – including children – are simply a means to an end. Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and pioneer in the world of virtual reality, and author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now takes this a step further, arguing that ‘it’s the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the true product’.

This leap from social media as a form of engagement between friends to full-blown data-mining and selling operations has just over a decade. Cambridge Analytica is now known to have aided Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns in 2016 by harvesting data from Facebook users– the same data used by advertisers on Facebook in an attempt to persuade you to buy the latest new-fangled gadget. Facebook has not implemented any meaningful strategy to prevent such an event from recurring, an ominous sign for where their loyalties lie and for things to come.

Efforts to persuade these companies to change their algorithms and marketing strategies are underway, but it’s hard to tell what their effect will be. Global Action Plan, an NGO focused on sustainability and sustainable behaviour change, has issued a letter to Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, advocating for an end to targeted advertising to all children under the age of 18. Co-signed by a number of academics and legal firms, the letter states that ‘the fact that ad-tech companies hold 72 million data points on a child by the time they turn 13 shows the extent of disregard for these laws, and the extraordinary surveillance to which children are subjected’.

It is easier for those of us who grew up without a mini computer in our immediate vicinities to switch off from the virtual world. Junk mail may be irritating, but it’s not addictive.

I miss having junk mail delivered into my mailbox, but I also know it’s an indulgence fed by a nagging nostalgia. All the money big companies used on designing and printing and delivering catalogues and magazines would be more useful if it were directed into finding environmentally sustainable solutions, or programs to help the neediest in our societies.

The Centre for a New American Dream estimates 44 per cent of junk mail in the United States isn’t even opened before being thrown away, and only 22 per cent is recycled. There hasn’t been any comparable study of junk mail in Australia, but I’d be willing to bet the numbers are similar. I am a diligent recycler and I try to be cognisant of my personal environmental impact, but I still reach for those catalogues every time I see them on my parents’ kitchen table.

But it’s also something I don’t really miss until I see it. On my daily walk to the train station, I’d often see bundles of junk mail sticking out of people’s letterboxes, and sometimes I’d have to suppress the urge to take some and stuff it into my bag. I never ended up stealing anyone else’s junk mail, partly because I was scared of getting caught by a nosy neighbour or a passer-by, and partly because I knew it was just a really silly idea.

Every generation is the last to experience certain phenomena; in the case of my generation, these include five cent lollies at the school tuckshop, petrol prices below a dollar a litre, and quite possibly, the wonders and annoyances of physically delivered junk mail. The term ‘junk mail’ is now perhaps better associated with unwanted emails.

Even though I never received money for the junk mail delivery I did, I wonder what kids will end up doing for a spare bit of pocket money in the future.

I wonder what I’d be like if junk mail hadn’t featured so prominently in my formative years – or even if I’d simply been allowed to buy the occasional treat for myself. Maybe then I wouldn’t have kept obsessively reading these catalogues, trying to wish these things into existence. My friends’ children and my children (if I end up having any) will – and are – growing up in a world where technology is inserted into every part of their lives, whether they like it or not. Junk mail, too, will roll with the times.