Stay Tuned/Journeys Into Darkest Mailbag

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Journeys Into Darkest Mailbag
5 April 1998

One of the good points of writing about ad culture is that you eventually end up exposed to an unimaginably vast range of weirdness in your mailbox.

It works like this: Sooner or later you see something advertised which is just too unbelievably cheesy or scary for your eyes to believe, and you think, "Wait, I've got to order one of these, just to see it." Assuming the price is right. Sixty bucks, although clearly a rip-off, was worth it for Eric's First Fries, because I was buying it for a friend's birthday as a joke, and it easily had sixty bucks' worth of humor value. Contrariwise, no matter how much I actually want to see the beast, I am not paying one hundred dollars for an Igia hair remover.

Anyway, you buy something or request a catalog so you can write about this weirdness, and suddenly the weirdness begets more weirdness - because some of these operations make easily as much money selling their mailing lists as they did selling the schlock in the first place.

Think about it: If you were a junk merchant, how much would you pay for the list of People With Too Much Money and No Taste Who'll Buy Anything Once? Even though the Stay Tuned research staff are working undercover on that list - we don't have too much money, and we have at least a little taste - we're definitely on it by now.

Mind you, not all of the strange mail that the home office gets can be blamed on these articles. Since we buy a lot of unusual computer software and hardware here, we're on all sorts of lists for that, and since we write have been known to write about sexual matters elsewhere, we get catalogs for items which would make some readers blush. We subscribe to a lot of magazines and catalogs, and some of them generate mail on their own. But there are items - usually addressed to me - which can only be blamed on my researches for these columns.

The nice folks at Ashton-Drake send me about two pieces of mail a month, based entirely on my ordering Eric. I don't know; sometimes I'm tempted to buy something else just to stay on their mailing list. (But what would I do with it? Put it over the monitor next to the Snuggle Buggle, I suppose.)

The current tie-in uses Winnie-the-Pooh (a Disney property, and don't you forget it) in conjunction with dolls of various cutesy kids doing cutesy things, which is Ashton-Drake's oeuvre. That whirring sound you hear is Alan Alexander Milne spinning in his grave. The company they've done the most tie-ins with, of course, is McDonald's, as regular readers know, but the Disney merchandising seems to be working well too - Disney and McDonald's being companies which have never objected to a saccharin image. I see a Warner Brothers tie-in in this pile also.

But Ashton-Drake is at its most bizarre when it departs from the doe-eyed dolls of cute toddlers. Here I have a Princess Diana commemorative figurine, for a hundred thirty dollars, in her midnight blue silk dress, eighteen inches high. The problem is that the designer, who usually does figures of two-year-olds, has apparently trained himself to do certain things automatically to the facial features, so we have here Diana as Kewpie doll. It's rather unnerving.


We have dolls here to give to girls in honor of their first communion - okay, I can understand that even if I wouldn't do it. But what about these life-like dolls of brides? Who is buying these, and for whom?



Keeping well in the cutesy end of the spectrum, I have here The Livonia Catalog. Although these people have branched out into other gift items (all new-baby oriented), the product they sell the most of is the first thing they ever made, and the product they're (apparently) known for: size one baby shoes, with the baby's name in engraved printing on the bottom of one shoe, and the date of birth on the bottom of the other.

I will spare you the cynicism about this catalog, since I admit that when it comes to the subject of babies - having them, raising them, or just being around them for more than an hour at a time - I generally abstain. It is interesting, though, given my outlook on the subject, to ponder how this catalog ended up in my mailbox at all. I have never purchased anything which could possibly be construed as a baby gift in my life. I did order some materials on infantilism once, in conjunction with a sexuality article, but the babies on that list can't fit into these shoes.

Of course, I shouldn't quibble, since it isn't the first time I've received a mailing whose origins I can't trace. I didn't request any materials from Land O Lakes (officially, they don't use an apostrophe), nor do I buy margarine, especially not soft margarine, but I have this nicely printed piece about the uses of their product-in-a-tub ("You Can Spread It ... You Can Scoop It ... You Can Blend It ... You Can Bake With It") with a free refrigerator magnet enclosed. It didn't seem to be one of those pieces everyone on the block gets - none of the neighbors got one. What does Land O Lakes know about me that I don't?

None of this, mind you, is the real triple-strength high weirdness. It's just advertising. But I wanted to break you in gently. Our next stop is Raylene Van Worth, Psychic Criminologist.

Raylene, who proudly informs me that she is on the Board of Directors of the New York State Metaphysical Society, sent me an eight-page letter shortly before my birthday in 1997. It was meant to look like it was typed, with handwritten additions, on her personal stationery - and it had a postal barcode in the middle of the first page, under my name and address where it showed in the window envelope. So much for the personal touch.

The letter began by promising me that "beginning on May 31, an incredible 72 Days of Good Fortune is going to wash over you," and added:

"Jot down that date: May 31, 1997. Write down how you're feeling about life at this moment. Be honest. Now put this note away and don't look at it again until ... December 29, 1997.

"I'll bet you lunch you won't recognize your old life."

Dearest Raylene, to make a long story short, wanted to tell my fortune for twenty dollars. Now, twenty bucks isn't bad for a fortune-teller these days. Inflation, you know. But Raylene's jibber-jabber designed to demonstrate her personal concern for my well-being ("It's five past midnight, I'm sitting here snuggled up on my bed typing away furiously, too excited to sleep") does not jibe with the professional printing job, the reply envelope (also barcoded), and the obvious form letter. Even someone who routinely gets their fortune told - which I don't - is not necessarily a fool.

Beyond that, the material is standard fortune stuff - a comment that I've been through some rough times in the past (which everyone has) and that things will improve dramatically in the future (which everyone wants). These two items are the heart and soul of fortune-telling. I could write you a fortune, sight unseen, right now, and you'd nod your head when you read it and say "Wow." Next time you hear or read a fortune - when you listen to some medium on a radio show or something - see how much of it boils down to that: It was rough for you, but it'll get better soon.

A year or so later, Raylene sent me another letter. The only differences in the copy between the first letter and the second were the dates, which had all moved up, and the fact that somewhere in that ensuing year, she had apparently learned my date of birth.

"Jot down that date: March 14, 1998. Write down how you're feeling about life at this moment. Be honest. Now put this note away and don't look at it again until ... October 6, 1998.

"I'll bet you lunch you won't recognize your old life."

I'll see if I hear from her again next year.

As for actually trying her trick: I routinely am amazed at where I was and what I was doing a week ago; that my life should be unrecognizable to me in six months seems self-evident.

At least Raylene has a last name. Another psychic I heard from around my birthday this year (who may well have been shopping from the same mailing list that gave Raylene my date of birth) gave her name simply as "Rochelle." In ten pages of printed materials, some of which builds up her reputation (places her predictions have been printed, things she's predicted which have happened, et cetera) not once is another name given. Even the people who write horoscopes for the newspapers have a last name - however pseudonymous.

At the bottom of any mailbag of weirdness, one inevitably finds Omniforce.

Haven't heard of these people? Get on some fringe mailing lists and wait. They'll find you eventually. They are a religion that tries not to look religious; pyramid power without the pyramid; mysticism without the mystics; the Church of the Sub-Genius without the sense of humor. They promise you everything you'll ever hear from any fortune-teller about how your personal power will increase and how you'll get rich and be tremendously happy, but they manage to spout many pages of copy about this without ever once giving any specifics about how their material is going to accomplish this.

I'm not kidding about these promises. In some of the more unlikely items taken from a single page in this package of material, they say their program will:
- Keep you from needing anaesthesia at the dentist - you'll do it mentally
- Enable you to lose weight without dieting
- Prevent various "illnesses," a category which lumps together such disparate maladies as eczema, constipation, and high blood pressure
- Improve your sex live, including curing frigidity and impotence, or give you a sex life if you don't have one
- Improve your handwriting and cure you of making spelling mistakes

I actually bought some Omniforce materials some years ago, back when they were scarier (they were a lot more like the Scientologists then, very protectionist; now they want to be more like psychological counselors). It was gibberish. Complete and utter gibberish, not even readable for inadvertent humor value.

As I say, sometimes I'm tempted. But not quite tempted enough to spend thirty bucks just to find out what variety of snake oil they're selling these days.


It was pointed out to me just after writing the above that Disney and McDonald's are apparently entering into a promotional agreement of some sort (according to an Economist article which I haven't read yet). I feel a certain sense of closure.

At about the time this article was written, The Livonia Catalog was busily renaming itself, and establishing a web presence, as Frankly, it was a good name change. They are still around, and still selling the same things.

Just for fun, I put "Raylene van Worth" into Google to see what would come up. It's a little sad. Mostly what I find are links to articles or other reports pointing out that dearest Raylene is a scam. The sad part is that this needs to be pointed out at all, that it is not self-evident. I have trouble imagining anyone in their right mind actually sending her (or others like her) money; it continually amazes me that people apparently do, or that there are people like this poor naive soul posting on Rip-Off Report in 2001:

I sent a check for 19.95 to cover her costs. Then I received a letter from Raylene Van Worth the other day promising me good luck for the next 72 days. I just sent this check out the other day. Then I saw these reports all over the internet about her being a scam artist.

Please, someone let me know if this woman is real or a scam artist. Can I get my money back?

No, dear, you cannot. Think of it as a stupidity tax, and learn.

The other thing that entertains me is that some of the loudest "she's a scam" warnings are from New Age types who believe that the outright frauds like Raylene are giving the more modest hocus-pocusers, like them, a bad name. Boys and girls, all astrology is claptrap. All psychics are full of malarkey. Almost all New Age therapies and so forth are veriest hogwash. You can write me nasty letters all you like, but you will not change the facts. So while it's entertaining to read a well-written rant like this one, there's also a different layer of amusement at how it goes astray in the final two paragraphs, where the blind spot is revealed:

Obviously, this woman doesn'tt give a hoot about her clients, since she callously tries to exploit people's weaknesses and unfortunate circumstances. This is doubly sad because there are plenty of good psychic readers who work closely with their clients to try to help them to improve their circumstances.

If you have had a long run of bad luck or if you are lonely and alone, don't become a hapless victim of someone like Raylene Van Worth. It's people like her who give the New Age a bad name.

I have my own ideas about what gives the New Age a bad name.

Omniforce continues to be a nonexistent web presence, and I'm not entirely sure (as of 2007) that they're still around, although I did find an eBay listing selling a set of their books.

One interesting item I found: The last person on this very dubious masthead was involved in "publishing successes such as Your Birthday Signs Through Time, Supermarket Remedies, OmniForce, Feng Shui Solutions, and Your Spirit Animal Helpers.". Wonder if it's the same Omniforce? And what about Rochelle Gordon, Editor-In-Chief? Is there any possibility that Rochelle is "Rochelle"? It's too much to hope for.

I stole "Darkest Mailbag" from Harlan Ellison, who uses it to describe the columns where he answers reader mail in the collection An Edge In My Voice.

and now back to our program

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