A Sweepstakes Scandal
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subject matter that I have grown up around. My mother has sent in each and every Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes letter she has received since she was twenty years old. She is positive that someday she will indeed win big money even though she has only won a few prizes worth about a dollar in over 30 years of doing it. Why? Simply because she is persuaded by someone or something to keep doing so.Persuasion is "the process by which a person's attitudes or behaviors are, without duress, influenced by communications from other people (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). There are numerous types of persuasion and in many forms. In the following pages I will take you on a journey through the tactics of sweepstakes companies, one in particular - Publishers Clearing House. This is an interesting
Sweepstakes companies have become very skilled at creating a web of deception by the headlines, the words; in fact many things about their mailings are intended to get people to buy products they would not likely buy otherwise. Sweepstakes companies target generations that are very trusting. These letters are mindfully designed to look like authentic government documents. Companies misrepresent the possibility of actually winning through the involved use of graphics which manipulate font, color, type size, layout, and text to hide the contest conditions in order to emphasize the likelihood of winning, when in fact it is simply a mass-market mailing. They even have personal notes from celebrities such as Ed McMahon that makes it difficult for a person not to believe that he is a winner. Other convincing techniques they use are the associated publicity release forms and pre-authorization of how one would like the prize payoff.
Publishers Clearing House, one of the United States largest operators of sweepstakes competitions, was founded in 1953 and has been holding sweepstakes since 1967. They sell magazine subscriptions, videos, collectible figurines, sport memorabilia, coins, household and personal care items, along with books and tapes. The company has given out approximately $137 million in money and prizes (pch.com). In contrast, during 1997 and 1998, the company had annual sales of about $375 million. Publishers Clearing House started out in the business of selling magazines but are now in the pursuit of selling sweepstakes, and instead of people being sold the benefits of the magazines, they are sold on being a winner, finalist, or having a better chance to win.
There are many people that get these letters in the mail and just throw them away; but there are many more that get very excited because they think that they could actually win. These people try to justify the situation and begin to think that if they purchase a magazine or something from Publishers Clearing House they would have a better chance. The more they purchase and enter the sweepstakes, the more letters they receive which causes them to anticipate winning. It becomes a routine and the more commitment and consistency one has, the more likely they think they are to win that big prize. Cialdini states that "commitment is the key" (Influence, pg. 67). This explanation of Publishers Clearing House subscribers makes sense. These subscribers are persuaded by the term that Cialdini calls "click-whirr". Once a person makes a commitment to purchasing the products or to the sweepstakes in general it becomes an automated response when the letters come in the mail. When they receive the letter (click) they fill them out and return them (whirr). This works for Publishers Clearing House because it causes a response in subscribers minds that the more they enter, the better their chance of winning and thus, the more they buy the more likely they will win. Along with this comes the issue of the "scarcity principle - that opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited" (Influence, 238). Publishers Clearing House uses this by deadlines on the headlines of the sweepstakes letter stating something like "Only the first 100 sweepstakes will be opened" "Send in today!" It gives the subscribers the sense of unavailability and works to get them motivated into sending the mailings in right then. Once they send in the first couple mailings, they receive more that "You are one of 10 final candidates left to WIN!" and so on. Scarcity works great in persuading the consumers to act very quickly.
Another strategy that is used is "social proof" which is stated by Cialdini as "one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct" (Influence, pg. 116). Advertisers use this technique when informing people when products are "largest selling" and such because since other people think so is social proof enough. This technique is used in various forms for Publishers Clearing House. The web site and television commercials alike make a tremendous impression of who wins these sweepstakes. "Real people win" - people just like you and me. This takes us to the "association principle" in Cialdini's chapter "Liking". Publishers Clearing House uses celebrity Ed McMahon to establish a positive connection between the product and the celebrity. This last method works positively only for those who know and remember Ed McMahon and liked him. I personally do not remember him as a celebrity, only as Ed McMahon the sweepstakes guy.
There have been many criticisms concerning Publishers Clearing House most pertaining to false representations of the sweepstakes. In June of 1996, The Better Business Bureau warned consumers of a bogus mailing from a Publishers Clearinghouse imitator in San Jose, California. The letter advises the recipients that they have won $100,000 and requests a $60 cash processing fee to be returned with the enclosed "Official Statement of Eligibility". Again in March of 1997, six individuals were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud through false representations concerning the Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. All of the defendants faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The BBB advises consumers "to beware of any cash giveaway or sweepstakes offers that involve an up-front, advance fee. That Legitimate sweepstake and prize offer companies will not require winners of prizes to pay any type of fee or purchase any merchandise or service in order to claim the prize."(http://www.bbb.com/).
Lawsuits have been filed many times against Publishers Clearing House. Attorney General Tom Miller of the State of Iowa's Department of Justice during a class act settlement said, "the Consumer Protection Division of his office is investigating possible violations of the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act by PCH." "We are concerned that PCH mailings may be deceptive in that many consumers may be misled to believe that they already are very close to winning a huge prize, and that making a purchase is either necessary or helpful to their winning the prize." He goes on to say "don't be misled into thinking you have won or that you are very close to winning -- in reality, sweepstakes notices are issued by the millions, and the chances of winning are usually no better than one in 100 million. A purchase does not increase the chance of winning." (http://www.state.ia.us/government).
In one business brief from The Wall Street Journal, the Publishers Clearing House agreed to pay $18 million to settle a series of legal proceedings from 24 U.S. States and the District of Columbia without admitting wrongdoing. Another lawsuit filed in Texas stated "that Publishers Clearing House sends "letter bombs, filled with deceptions." The falsehoods include misleading documents, such as tax forms and phony checks, indicating that the recipient is near winning. They also allege special considerations for those who order merchandise and stating that people have won when they have not." (http://www.dallasnews.com/)
The outcomes of these lawsuits and others have been moderately successful. Publishers Clearing House has voluntarily added the odds of winning to its mailings, expanded its "no purchase necessary" disclaimer and reduced the number of mailings one person can receive. That does not mean that people will read the warning signs, but it is a step in the right direction. What these sweepstakes are doing is a form of propaganda, which is defined as "a dissemination of information - facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies - to influence public opinion."(Encyclopedia Britannica Online). Publishers Clearing House unquestionably has persuasion down to a tee.
Business Brief - PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE: Agreement Is
Made to Pay $18 Million to Settle Dispute; Wall Street
Journal, New York, N.Y.; Aug 23,2000; Eastern edition;
Press Release - Six Charged With Million Dollar
Telemarketing Sweepstakes Scam; Better Business Bureau
"persuasion" " Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?thes_eu=60848&sctn=1&pm=1 [Accessed December 1
"propaganda" Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?thes_id=30448&pm=1 [Accessed December 1
Texas files suit against Publishers Clearing House; The
Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas; Oct 19,1999; Texas
and Southwest pg.1
News Brief - Miller Questions Publishers Clearing House
Class Action Settlement; Iowa Department of Justice web
site, http://www.state.ia.us/index.html; pg.30
Cialdini, B. Robert, Ph.D.; INFLUENCE The Psychology of Persuasion; Quill William Morrow New York, N.Y.