Monday, February 9, 1998

Week of 02/09/1998

The Losing Side Of Sweepstakes
- by David Matthews 2

Got some rather boring stuff in the mail this past week. Thick envelopes with some rather loud messages on them.






Now I’m sure a lot of you would be asking what is wrong with this picture. Three envelopes each advertising that I have won between two and ten million dollars and they don’t raise any eyebrows.

Well that’s because I also read the fine print on each of them. Each of them start off the same way: "If you return the winning ticket…"

That’s right, they’re sweepstakes entries! I haven’t won anything. At least not yet. And in all likelihood, not ever. I’ve been playing these games for over ten years now. The novelty of their tactics have long since worn off on me. Now they’re just as much an annoyance as the weekly junk mail I get from discount grocery stores advertising no-name cola for $.69 a six.

Basically, they talk loudly and proudly about the potential sweepstakes winnings. Money, money, money, makes the world go round. And if money isn’t your thing, there’s also talk about trips, cars, stereo equipment, home theatre systems, jewelry. Of course, you don’t HAVE to subscribe to the plethora of magazines these sweepstakes companies are offering. But I often wonder of all the people who do win in these things, how many of them didn’t subscribe?

A few years ago, one particular sweepstakes company made is extremely hard for you to enter their contests without subscribing. Most contests have pre-paid envelopes with little stickers to put on that indicated that a subscription order was included, or separate envelopes that say "order enclosed" or "no order enclosed" in different colors. But with this particular company, you had to send them a postcard with your name, address, age, and the words "SWEEPSTAKES ENTRY" on it. And to do the same thing for the other contests as well. A separate postcard for the car contest. Another separate card for the home entertainment contest. Still one more for the vacation contest. You had to write down basically the same information on four postcards or index cards just to enter in a contest without having to subscribe to it. And it would go to a different address than was printed on the return envelope. Of course, if you wanted to order a subscription, all you had to do was put a little sticker on the entry card and send it in.

After spending so much time entering this particular contest without putting in an order, I sent a letter to the sweepstakes company about this convoluted procedure. This was just after a rival sweepstakes company was caught discarding all of their unopened "no order" entries into the dumpster, so I was curious to know if this company was any different. A few weeks later, I got a reply stating that the entries and subscription orders are at different addresses, thus the entries without orders go straight to the entry division, and the ones with orders go to the subscription department first, then copied to index cards and sent to the entry department. I must say that they had a pretty good explanation for this situation. Whether or not I believe it completely is another matter. I should also point out that the next time I got stuff from them, I didn’t have to fill out a plethora of index cards.

The important thing about these sweepstakes is that you really have to read the fine print on them. Plenty of people didn’t do that with the sweepstakes run by American Family Publishers. You may have seen the commercials with Ed McMahon and Dick Clark on them. Well, that has caused people to mistakenly fly to Tampa, Florida in hopes to collect money they thought they had won. It’s pretty hard to notice, though, when you see an envelope with big words saying "You and one other person in your state were given winning numbers." I don’t know about you, but that certainly sounds like a sure thing on the face of it. AFP is now facing a class-action lawsuit for their advertising practices, and the State of Florida is considering joining in as well.

Another part of the fine print is the odds of you winning the sweepstakes. Forget hearing about who in which state got winning numbers, or what "award level" or "runoff category" you are supposedly in. You have a much better chance at being struck by lightning than winning in these contests. In fact, my father has already been struck by lightning, and he hasn’t gotten any closer to winning a sweepstakes than getting more and more of those "final runoff" envelopes.

While I’m at it, it’s also sort of strange that with all those "final runoff" entries I keep getting in the mail that I don’t even end up getting the tenth place $20 or cheap Rolex watch winnings. Do those prizes even exist, or are they just smoke screens to make you think you’re getting something when all you’re doing is wasting postage?

Look, it’s great to win something in these sweepstakes. But just like the lottery or bingo, the odds aren’t with you on them, no matter how loud and enticing the messages can be on the envelopes.

Here’s something to consider: if you really got the winning entry in a sweepstakes, do you actually think they would notify you by bulk rate mail? The same postal category as all the junk mail you and I get? I don’t think so. Something that important wouldn’t be delivered so cheaply. If you had really won, they would call or knock on your door. They would not have you fly down to their offices at your expense.

We all want to win something in these contests. It would be great if I woke up one day and realized that I had won ten million dollars and I didn’t have to have a care in the world for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, life is never that easy. There’s always some kind of fine print you have to deal with.

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