Cagey Consumer

Magazine Sweepstakes Take Blame for Effective Marketing

Accused of targeting the elderly

Recently, Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers, among others, have been accused of targeting elderly people with misleading mailings that led people to believe that ordering magazine subscriptions would improve their chances of winning. There's little doubt that these businesses were trying to get as close to the "edge" of what was legal in order to maximize the response to their mailings.

But what about this charge of targeting the elderly? This is being raised as a particularly heinous tactic, and it's possible that, if this were true, it would increase the severity of any penalties that would be imposed.

Is it really likely that this is what the executives had in mind when they sent out these mailings? Did they think "Let's ignore those 18-34 year olds, we need to get the money from the 70 and 80 year olds who are on fixed incomes."?

This seems highly improbable. Everybody's money is equally green, and the only thing that the folks running these businesses had in mind was how to maximize their take, regardless of exactly who was responding.

Like most other direct mail marketers, they probably decided to send their mailings to people who had previously responded and ordered magazine subscriptions. They didn't need to find out anybody's age, because they really didn't care about the age, just about how likely somebody was to order more magazines.

Of course, elderly people are likely to be less active, as a result they may have more time to peruse their mail. For cultural reasons, they may be less likely to toss such junk mail, as well as less suspicious of the apparent promises made. If this is the case, a sort of "natural selection" would cause a relatively high proportion of the recipients to be elderly.

Same reasoning applies to other areas

If Publishers Clearing House and the rest crossed the line, then make no mistake, the rules of law should apply. But we shouldn't let that distract us from the numerous marketing practices which may take advantage of the weaknesses of other groups.

Consider car ads. If an ad suggests that owning a particular car will cause pretty young women to be attracted, isn't this just taking advantage of the weaknesses of the male gender? Is it really true that a nerdy guy can attract women just by buying the right car? Even if it is true, isn't this just an example of the automobile industry taking advantage of society by getting young men to compete for women by buying fancy cars?

What about laundry detergent? Pity the woman who buys the wrong detergent, that doesn't get the clothes as clean-smelling or as bright as some other brand. Isn't Procter & Gamble just holding out a false hope that their detergent will bring happiness to these women? Is that hope really any less false than the one that buying some magazines will cause the Prize Patrol to knock at your door? I don't think so.

With few exceptions, every ad promises us improved health, wealth, or happiness, and with few exceptions, such claims are either exaggerated or explicitly false. We don't need a clear-cut dividing line to know that such ads are, without significant exception, designed to cause people to act in a way contrary to their best interest. Let's not single out a couple of businesses that use comparatively harmless sweepstakes ads. Let's get 'em all!

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Updated February 4, 2000