, Research Paper
Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes or Scam
On January 28, 1999, Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle filed a civil lawsuit against one of the largest sweepstakes promoters in the country, Publishers Clearing House for “allegedly making fraudulent representations” or using deceptive advertising. According to the complaint, “Publishers clearing house is charged with misrepresenting:
? that consumers have won or will win a large cash prize in the company’s sweepstakes;
? that consumers will improve their chances of winning by purchasing merchandise from PCH;
? that the PCH sweepstakes is endorsed, ratified or legalized by the state of Wisconsin and the United states government; and
? the terms and conditions of the PCH sweepstakes.”
Wisconsin’s lawsuit is pursuing “penalties for the alleged violations of Wisconsin’s consumer laws, disgorgement of all profits the company has made from the unlawful sale of merchandise, restitution for consumers who have lost money and a court order to force Publishers Clearing house to change its marketing practices.” In addition, Doyle believes that federal legislation should do more to protect consumers from “fraudulent sweepstakes offers.”
Publishers Clearing House disagrees, contending that their rules are very specific, that they disclose all of their odds, and that people understand the promotions. Debbie Holland, senior vice president of the company insists that “people don’t think that they win” when they receive letters from the company notifying that they are the “latest ten million dollar winner.” Holland has also suggested that excerpts from their letters such as “you have to keep your customer status high” or “thank the prize patrol in advance” are not intended to trick consumers into purchasing products from the company, but are meant to “simply ask for an order.” Publishers Clearing House vice president Todd Sloan contends that their promotions are “clear and easy to understand and the overwhelming majority of consumers who play the sweepstakes know how to play and know no purchase is necessary.” So, does Publishers Clearing House offer a legitimate sweepstakes promotion or are they running a scam using deceptive advertising to pursued consumers to purchase products from their company?
The Federal Trade Commission defines a deceptive ad as “a material representation or omission of information that is likely to mislead consumers, who are acting reasonably, to their detriment.” Publishers Clearing House uses overwhelming material representation in its advertisements; for example, in a letter sent to my roommate, the company proclaimed that “the results are now in: Tray Guepet has won one of our latest $1,666,675.00 prizes!” Other examples include “confidential internal memos suggesting that the company big shots have already pegged you as a winner” and “would you like to stay in New York for a winners celebration?” The fact that the advertisements leave out that most people do not win or that “no purchase is necessary” is buried in fine print is an omission that misleads potential consumers. The advertisements are deceiving because of the material representations and the omissions. Reasonable people are definitely interested in winning millions of dollars, but some either do not understand the fine print (in the letters) or are so deterred by the messages that they have won that they do not pay attention to it. Finally, the money wasted on trinkets, magazines and other items that Publishers Clearing House pushes on consumers is detrimental to consumers. From my understanding of the FTC’s definition of deceptive ads, and the advertisements used by Publishers Clearing House, I believe that deceptiveness is the key to their business. Also, I agree with Attorney General James Doyle in that the company should be forced to change the way that they do business. In my opinion, Publishers Clearing House is stealing hard earned money from people by falsely making them believe that they are soon to be millionaires.
The function of free expression that pertains to the advertisements of Publishers Clearing House is the “Attainment of Truth”. According to Thomas I. Emerson, “freedom of expression is not only an individual but also a social good. It is, to begin with, the best process for advancing knowledge and discovering truth.” I have learned that the only truth in the expressions used by Publishers Clearing House is that they are making a lot of money off of stretching it. Emerson also said, “human judgment is a frail thing. It may err in being subject to emotion, prejudice or personal interest. It suffers from lack of information and insight, or inadequate thinking.” I believe that Publishers Clearing House is preying on poor human judgment by appealing to peoples emotions and personal interest, and by leaving out or burying important information in their advertisements. This is deceptive advertising and they should be stopped.
Citation of Sources
World Wide Web page: NBC News. “The lure of sweepstakes” MSNBC news online, March 3,1999. Address: www.msmbc.com/news/246352.asp
World Wide Web page: State of Wisconsin Department of Justice. “Publishers Clearing House is fictitious; Doyle says the sweepstakes’ deceptions are outrageous.” Wisconsin’s Department of Justice web-site, April 13, 1999. Address: www.doj.state.wi.us/capitol/nr041399.htm
World Wide Web page: Media Central. “Publishers Clearing House sued again for fraud” Media Central web-site, February 22, 1999. Address: www.mediacentral.com/channels/marketing/919707260-347.html
World Wide Web page: Theimer, Sharon. “Wisconsin sues Publishers Clearing House.” ABC news online, January 29, 1999. Address: www.abcnews.go.com/sections/business/DailyNews/wisconsin990129.html
Scholarly articles: Emerson Thomas. “The Function of Freedom of Expression in Democratic Society.” Class handout.