The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


March 24, 1998
3:30 PM


Here's a piece of mail that just arrived at my house.  You see, about a year ago, this "guest" who stayed with us made a call or two to the Psychic Friends Network.  The consequences of this have been to land our household on some very special mailing lists, for the "truly stupid sucker".

If you think the Publishers Clearing House promotions are insulting and deceiptful, the people behind this stuff are the World Champions of Junk Mail.

Start with the envelope.  It is designed to look like it comes from some official government agency.  The return address, printed in fancy, diploma-style script, reads:

The Offices of
Records of Declaration, Disbursements Division
National Correspondence   Official Records Verification
Registered Confidential Documents

Then seemingly stamped across the side, in large red letters, it says "REGISTERED DOCUMENT ENCLOSED".  It says the same thing in small print above the address window, plus "Please verify contents."  Through the window, the document inside looks as if it might be a check.  Finally, in the lower right corner of the envelope is a box, in small print:

Registered documents enclosed for addressee only.  No other individual should open or take possession of the contents which are private and intended for the person named herein.  $2,000.00 fine or 5 years imprisonment or both for any person who tampers or obstructs delivery; U.S. Code Title 18, Sec. 1702

Well, you may not be hearing from me for about five years, because I'm going to open this envelope now, even though it's not addressed to me. . . .

Ah, it's a travel scam!  (Darn, I was hoping it would be from the Psychic Friends themselves.  But I should have known, because their junk mail, which arrives all too frequently, announces right on the envelope: "Dear Psychic Friend, I've just seen something very important in your future, and you need to call me right away!")

We have here a "Boarding Authorization," which doesn't look like a check, but instead a ticket, issued by the "Confirmation Center".  It has the passenger name, date of issue, place of issue (Orlando, FL), Confirmation Number, Control Number, and an itinerary to Orlando, Ft. Laueredale, and Grand Bahama, with "bonus definitions" in Cancun and Cocoa Beach.  Stamped across the side, again in capital red letters, is "UNCONFIRMED".  Wow!  I'm half packed already!

Oh, wait.  There, in small letters down at the bottom we find the ominous words, "This is not an actual ticket."

But see, if we open it up, it becomes this big document: "Writ of Authorization"  In more official-looking text, it says:

This document serves as official notification.  The holder of this document, (Name), is hereby on record and approved as of 3/21/98 and as a result of this offer your name and confirmation number have been identified and issued.

The main section of the document is designed like an award or diploma.  It's surrounded by an intricate green border.  In the right corner is a gold sun that says "Authenticity Certified by (Company)".  In the left, is another fake red stamp, that says "Authorization to release Vacation Package," with a line under it, and a fake blue signature on the line.  In the top center of this certificate there's an eagle on a shield, holding arrows with its claws (much like a certain U.S. currency), and in its beak is a banner that says "Document of Authenticity" (I'm not kidding).  Under that, we finally begin to get to the meat of things, I think:

This certifies that you wil receive a World Class Florida/Caribbean Vacation Package offer for You and Your Family, including all accommodations, cruise, and rental car!

This certifies that (Name), residing at (address) is the registered holder of this Document from (Company)!  In celebration of our National Promotion, you wil receive our Spectacular Vacation Package offer!  Contact your Travel Coordinator within 72 hours.

It then goes on to describe the glorious detail, using the inevitable terms "fun-filled," "romantic," luxury," exciting," fabulous," "breathtaking," and of course, "tropical island paradise".  Sounds wonderful doesn't it?

But we're shrewd, right?  Let's look at the fine print, on the back.  Hmm.  It tells us that only individuals who have been issued a "validated notification" can respond.  We learn that the Company is involved in promoting travel and real estate in Florida.  We're told that all accommodations will be at "quality recognized hotels".  This is not available to the general public.  Void where prohibited.  This is not a contest, sweepstakes, lottery, or giveaway.  All laws and regulations apply.  Certain costs such as transportation, hotel taxes, and insurance, etc., are not included.  Bla bla bla.  Please, only one call per notification.

Sounds reasonable to me.  I mean, a fun-filled, luxury vacation from a reputable company, to fabulous destinations -- wait a minute!  "This is not a giveaway!?"  "Certain costs such as transportation not included!?"  What's going on here, anyway?

What's going on is, they're trying to sell you something.  That's all.  This entire package of "Official Notification" and "Document of Authenticity" is simply an offer to sell you some hotel rooms and an ocean cruise.  Nowhere on this fancy certificate does it say anything about the services being "Free".

It does say, however, "only one call per notification".  What that means is, if you call the 800 number, you will be treated to a hard sell from a trained salesperson, who will only arrive at the PRICE for all this luxury after dragging you through 20 minutes of sales pitch, whereupon you will be informed that you must purchase this vacation RIGHT NOW, using your credit card, and if you don't (i.e., if you want to think first), too bad, you lose, because "only one call per notification".

So, yes, it's nothing more than a fancy, highly deceptive advertisement for some pre-packaged vacation options, transportation not included.  The idea, obviously, is to excite the recipient into thinking they've somehow won a contest that they don't remember entering, and have received this fabulous free vacation, which is all certified and authenticated, just waiting for him to call and confirm.  And, just as obviously, there must be plenty of suckers out there who (1) are conned into believing they'll get something for nothing, and (2) are gullible enough to then agree to pay for the thing they thought they were getting for free, once they find out that they were conned in the first place.  This particular scam has been going on for several years, so it must work pretty often.

What I'm wondering is, are they in league with the Psychic Friends?  Does the Psychic Friend tell the Psychic Sucker that she sees a luxury vacation in the near future?  I wouldn't be surprised.

None of this is illegal, of course, here in the Land of the Free, nor should it be.  Stupidity isn't illegal, either.  The fine line between creative advertising and mail fraud is far beyond this little exercise. The Publishers Clearing House only just agreed to refrain from using its ubiquitous "John Q. Smith has already won $10,000,000" mailings, under pressure from numerous potential lawsuits.  But that's far more blatantly deceptive than "Writ of Authorization," and the Florida promoters' lawyers undoubtedly know this.  Just calling yourself "Records of Declaration, Disbursements Division" doesn't make you a liar.  I could set up a company called "Official Euphoria Dispensation Company, Ecstasy Division," and then sell home-made potato chips.

It's like all those television advertisements that have "real" looking people talking to someone, seemingly an interviewer, off-camera.  "I always get all this flakey white stuff in my hair.  It's embarrassing.  The other day, my daughter told me, 'Mom, you look like a Snowman!"  (Later)  "No-Flakes Shampoo got rid of my dandruff.  I'm going to switch to No-Flakes.  My daughter says I look human again!"  The fact that this person looks and sounds like an average idiot doesn't change the fact that she is, indeed, an actress, reciting a script.  Not a very successful actress, of course, or else she wouldn't get the job of playing someone you've never seen before.  

But again, someone determined that we the audience are more inclined to buy a product if other "ordinary" people claim it worked for them.  So do they interview actual ordinary people?  Are you kidding?  What's the point, when all you need to do is hire a $10-an-hour actress to read a script for 30 seconds?  There's no lie involved.  The same is true of those commercials where they pretend to read a letter from a satisfied customer, and even give a name and town at the end.  There's nothing illegal about fabricating a piece of fan mail for an advertisement.  It's no different from fabricating an entire TV family, sitting at the dinner table, enjoying Adolph's Meat Tenderizer.

Now, maybe the politically correct crowd would like to pass laws protecting stupid people from being exploited by clever, intentionally misleading advertisements.  Of course, that might shut down more than half of Madison Avenue, so it's doubtful it would ever happen.  But should we really worry about the plight of the sucker in our society?  Isn't P.T. Barnum one of our heroes?  Isn't Ronald Reagan another?  Isn't our entire economy, as well as political system built on a foundation of smooth talking people into buying something or voting for someone, not really on merit, but under the hypnosis of a siren song of paradise around the corner?

Well, that's today's lesson.  For your homework assignment, I want you to watch TV commercials, and read newspaper ads, and go through your junk mail, with a hyper-critical eye.  Ask yourself, "how stupid do they think I am, anyway?"  What, you already do that?  Good, that means you're ahead of the class.


1998 David N. Townsend

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