Congratulations! You may already be a sucker

All those who voted for Brian Mulroney, put up your hands. All those who love reading The National Enquirer, put up your hands. All those who buy subscriptions through Publishers Clearing House and their ilk because you think you'll win cash...

All those who voted for Brian Mulroney, put up your hands.

All those who love reading The National Enquirer, put up your hands.

All those who buy subscriptions through Publishers Clearing House and their ilk because you think you’ll win cash big time, put up your hands.

Hmmm. Three questions. But no hands. Somebody’s in denial.

After all, Mulroney became prime minister with the largest majority in Canadian history; somebody must have voted for him. Those copies of The National Enquirer – they don’t just self-destruct at the checkout counter each week; somebody’s got to be buying them. And PCH? I’m betting they don’t spend a kazillion dollars a year on direct mail simply to increase awareness of Ed McMahon; surely they’re selling magazines to somebody.

And indeed they are. According to a 1999 study by Opinion Research Corporation International, 54% of people who have ever received a sweepstakes entry in the mail have entered a mail-in contest (even if they won’t admit it to anyone but a pollster).

It does surprise me a little that such a large percentage of people have entered such contests where their odds of winning are paper thin. But what absolutely amazes me is that one in 20 sweeps-by-mail recipients actually believe they’ve just won the jackpot. That means for every million packages sent out by mailers like PCH and Canadian Family Publishers, there are 50,000 Canadians making real plans to tell their boss to take this job and shove it. Yes, they genuinely believe they’ve just become a millionaire – because an envelope said as much.

Can’t you almost hear them?

‘Guess what, Ferd! That government man just came and…’

‘Which one, Ma? The Revenoor?’

‘No, the nice one who treks Gramma’s letters all the way from her house to ours. And he gived me this here o-fishal document that says we’re millionaires!’

‘Praise be. No more livin’ in this old shack with tar paper peeling off.’

‘That’s right. Now we can afford some new tar paper!’

True, maybe that land they bought in Florida was a little swampier than they’d been led to believe. And maybe there was some misunderstanding about who really was entitled to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge. But this time, by gum, there’s no mistake about it – they’re millionaires. Hey, Ed McMahon himself says so.

Perhaps this sleazy subsection of the DM industry could be deemed harmless if it weren’t for the fact that so many gullible people dish out good money for postage (yes, the PCHs of the world make their dupes pay the freight to enter their sweeps). Or, more importantly, if the ever-hopeful just entered the contest and didn’t feel they were improving their chances of winning by shelling out hard-earned cash for magazines they wouldn’t normally buy…and maybe can’t even read.

And I do think ‘sleazy’ is the correct term for describing this kind of direct mail. If they were on the up-and-up, these hide-in-the-weeds subscription pushers wouldn’t go to such mind-boggling pains to conceal what they’re actually selling.

That said, there’s something I confess I admire about them. (It’s like how you feel about Jesse James. OK, he was a thief and murderer, but you’ve still got to hand it to him for the way he eluded the long arm of the law so successfully.) The guys who put these win-millions, mag-solicitation packages together are no dummies. They test package against package, list against list, one season versus another season – anything and everything in order to come up with the latest winning formula.

They find out what works and what doesn’t and get to know their victims better than they know themselves. And when they’re ready, they load their guns for bear and attack, using every trick in the book – and then throw in some new ones for bad measure.

Based on the PCH-type packages I’ve received, it’s obvious they’ve learned that they don’t get sufficient response if they’re forthright about the fact that they’re pushing magazine subscriptions. Instead, they hide their true intentions with every diversionary tactic possible.

They’ve learned that their targets respond well to sweepstakes offers rather than to discounts or premiums. And they know from the get-go that the kind of recipient who dutifully enters their contest is susceptible to anything that sounds official and/or authoritarian.

To cite an example, here’s how to reel in a boatload of suckers, according to Canadian Family Publishers.

Start with an 11 1/2 by 8-inch kraft envelope. On the front, use a couple of supposed ink stamps to make it look like a human hand has personally mailed you the package, and perhaps to take your eye away from the bulk indicia that proves otherwise.

Create a logo-like device that says ‘Contents Protected and Monitored.’ (Hey, you’re not lying. The contents are protected – by the envelope. And you better believe the results will be monitored!) Then, just to dazzle both the illiterate and those awe-struck by authority, say ‘IMPORTANT: It is critical that you respond promptly to initiate the election procedure in which you are entitled to participate.’

‘They want us to initial what, Ma?’

‘What it says right here – the produce.’

On the back, throw in another ink-stamp commanding anyone within eyesight to DO NOT FOLD. Then have two important-sounding company officials sign their names to the following dire warning: ‘Enclosed documents are for your eyes only. If you notice that this package has been damaged, or that someone else has read these documents without your express permission, you may wish to contact Canada Post Authorities.’

Actual translation: In case you didn’t know it, stupid, it’s against the law to open other people’s mail.

But the pièce de resistance comes at the bottom of the envelope back. The copy there reads: SPECIAL REVERSE-DIRECTIONAL FLAP. (Translation: We decided to put the flap at the bottom instead of the top.) THIS FLAP HAS BEEN SPECIALLY ENGINEERED TO PREVENT SECURITY VIOLATIONS OF IMPORTANT CONTENTS. (i.e., it lets us lick the glue on the flap and press down, so the envelope’s contents don’t fall out.)

Inside this particular mailing, you find a forbidding-looking black-and-white ‘document’ that ultimately unfolds to measure 22 by l5 inches. To make it appear oh-so-just-for-you, it’s personalized no less than 11 times. And to reintroduce a little officialdom, it includes a green sticky that’s a dead ringer for a Canada Customs stamp. In addition, there’s a sealed envelope with what appears to be a cheque worth $l0,000 per week for five weeks. Plus, there’s an oversized reply envelope featuring precisely 85 words plus address.

And, oh yeah, the package also contains a raft of stamps so you can tell CFP which magazines you agree to take, and a flyer that promotes more mags and books. That’s right, after they get you all in a tizzy about how much money you’ve surely won, they ask if you want to subscribe to a few of the magazines they’re hawking. And four payments of just $4.24 sounds pretty cheap after you’ve spent the last half-hour reading about millions of dollars.

So if you’re a typical recipient, will you say no? Or will you figure it’s got to be worth a few bucks to suck up to the people who are about to make you a millionaire.

Personally, if these kind of subscription sellers approached me at the door instead of through the mail, I’d count my fingers after shaking hands with them. But, again, professionally, in some ways I have to tip my hat to them – they set a clear objective, they invest in testing, and they don’t mind spending a dollar in production to ensure that they get many more dollars back.

But, then, just because Mussolini made the trains run on time…

Rather than encourage the you’re-a-millionaire-honest-you-are magazine sellers, Bob Knight prefers to be periodically deprived. As a result of having so little reading to do, he has ample time to work on any direct mail packages that you might care to send his way. You can e-mail him at Knight & Associates at b_knight@telus.net. (Just don’t tell him you’ll make him a millionaire unless you really mean it.)