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How Many Lies Can You Find In One Direct Mail Piece?

by Joel Spolsky
Saturday, March 24, 2001

George Meyer, one of the writers on the Simpsons, likes to collect examples of advertising in which "the word-to-falsehood ratio approaches one." In an interview in the New Yorker, he complained about a magazine ad for a butter substitute called Country Crock. "It's not from the country, there is no crock," he told the interviewer. "Two words, two lies."

Recently I got this piece of junk mail from Earthlink (larger view)

Just for my own personal amusement, I decided to try to count how many lies are on this particular fine specimen.

  1. The whole piece is attempting to disguise itself as an express mail letter. They are working on the assumption that ignorant recipients will confuse it with a Federal Express letter, or perhaps think that "Urgent Express" is a company that competes with FedEx. Uh huh. Ooooh! The marketing slimeballs at Earthlink must have drooled at the thought of old Marge in a nursing home, practically falling over with excitement that she got an urgent express letter, like those letters you get from fancy New York lawyers urging you to sue the nursing home.

  2. It says that it's urgent, and it isn't, it's just a stupid CD trying to get you to sign up for Internet access.

  3. It says that it's "express", but it's mailed using "Presorted Standard" rate, which isn't express at all, in fact, it probably cost precisely $0.23 to mail (FedEx is $15.34).

  4. It has a tracking number, but it is using a class of mail service that is not tracked, and I'll bet you anything that everybody gets the same tracking number. Sorry, folks, for $0.23 you don't get tracking.

  5. It uses a fake handwriting font, intended to make you think that it is not junk mail but rather something that a person made for you.

  6. It says that it's from Sky Dayton (founder of Earthlink) although it is actually from Earthlink's direct marketing department. I can just see the thought going through the copy writer's head. "People won't open it unless it's from someone they know, and everyone knows Sky Dayton!"

  7. It has a "sender's account number" which is, of course, completely fake (Anybody care to try to use it to sign up for Earthlink?)

  8. It has a little "payment" section with a checkbox indicating that it should be billed to the sender, even though this has no meaning on standard mail.

  9. It has a "release signature" with a little annotation that this signature is "required," when actually no "release signature" is required at all.

  10. It says "Time Sensitive Material Enclosed," which is almost certainly untrue and meaningless anyway.

  11. On the back, it says "Weight Limit 8 Ounces" even though the actual weight limit for Presorted Standard is 16 Ounces.

  12. It actually has a piece of clear plastic glued on the front. The clear plastic serves no purpose whatsoever except to imitate FedEx envelopes which have the same plastic to hold the mailing manifest, much like those little butterflies which have fierce markings in attempt to convince butterfly-eaters that they themselves are fierce, even though they couldn't be less fierce if they were dressed up like Julie Andrews in high heels singing "My Favorite Things." In nature this is called Batesian mimicry.

The biggest problem with direct mail (what we normal people call "Junk Mail") is that 99% of it (literally) gets thrown away unopened, Batesian mimicry or not. To combat this, direct mailers will do anything to get you to open their junk, no matter how dishonest.

When I went to Earthlink's home page, it only took me a couple of clicks to find their Mission and Core Values and Beliefs. And what it says there is:

We require complete honesty and integrity in everything we do.

I didn't even have the energy to open the damn thing and see how many lies were on the inside. Does this mailing strike you as "completely honest"? Or just "business as usual?" Am I too sensitive? Should I go back to complaining about complaining about Bloatware?

[Followup: Earthlink is unrepentant.]


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