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May 1998
Volume 16, Number 5

You (May) Win
by Tibor R. Machan

For years I received the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes mailing and just tossed it. No way would I waste my time for what amounts to a minuscule chance to win a bundle of dough. Sure, some folks win, but they are extremely few. The gimmicks were too obvious. ("When you win, do you want a red, green, or white Jaguar?")

But then I thought I should experience the ritual of going through their scheme. After all, I teach business ethics and I also support the free market as the best forum for human commercial undertakings. It would be an education to see what this outfit does in the way of promotion and marketing.

So for about a year and a half I went through the nearly weekly routine of filling out their forms, occasionally ordering a magazine or two, putting up with the annoying come-ons involving the near-promises and near-predictions, all just to be able to think about and discuss in class how the firm conducts its drawing.

Indeed, the process is a nuisance I would not recommend to anyone unless he has no life at all and going through all the rigmarole would add spice to it, somehow. Apparently, for some people, filling out these entries is a form of entertainment in itself. And Publisher's Clearing House does, after all, offer some deals, if you really want to read the magazines they sell.

But some state attorneys general are taking matters far more seriously. Some people have been so persuaded by the come-ons for these sweepstakes that they have taken a car or airplane to the company's offices to pick up their winnings. The media loves these stories: look at this poor old man who has been victimized by greedy magazine merchants! Even the FTC is taking a close look.

It's true that when one receives a notice from Publisher's Clearing House, or its competitor American Family Enterprises, the wording is such that one needs to pay close attention. But no commitment is actually being made, no matter how many exclamation points are on the envelope. There is really no reason to get your hopes up. It is not fraud, but a ruse, a ploy, a way to cajole you to buy magazines, as the companies freely admit.

But so what? People will often try to lure you into schemes, sometimes highly misleading ones, by which they hope to enrich themselves. Have these attorneys general never been to the state fair? Vendors offer games that look easy from appearances, but which are nearly impossible to win on the first few tries. If Publisher's Clearing House should be banned on grounds that it is misleading, every fairground in the country would have to be closed.

It is, however, not so difficult to figure out that your chances of becoming wealthy from following through with their program of repeated mailings of forms, reading of circumspect letters, etc. is nearly zero. Perhaps that's why revenue to these companies has fallen 30 percent in four years.

No one promised us that in the market economy we would be surrounded by people who will refrain from dubious ways of getting ahold of our money. Certainly it is much less devious than what politicians do to us, what with their vague promises and fraudulent programs.

Just think of Social Security, which may be social but lacks any measure of security. After forty years of robbing me of a sizable portion of my income each year, I will receive just enough each month to pay a portion of my lodging, if that much. Now that is fraud. Worse, because the state forces you into the system, you cannot shield yourself from being taken in, even if you figure out the trick.

And these are the guys who want to protect you from Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes! I'd rather depend on my own consumer protection skills, thank you very much. Indeed, without very much effort, I confirmed that taking part in the contest was not for me, as I had thought all along. But it did teach me a thing or two about how one needs to read promotion literature carefully, with your hopes set to the side and your reason in clear focus.

That, not Ralph Nader or the Federal Trade Commission, is the best defense against schemes and ruses perpetrated in the market place.


Tibor Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University

FURTHER READING: Albert Carr, "Is Business Bluffing Ethical?" in Tom L. Beauchamp & Norman E. Bowie, eds., Ethical Theory and Business (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983), pp. 318-24; Tibor R. Machan, Generosity: Virtue in the Civil Society (Washington, D.C.: Cato, 1998); Ludwig von Mises, "Uncertainty and Acting" in Mises, Human Action (Chicago: Regnery, 1966), pp. 105-18.


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