Stay Tuned/Mailbox Of Sneaky Tricks

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Mailbox Of Sneaky Tricks
12 July 1998

A trip to the grocery store today was really tempting column material, what with the new Excessively Chocolate Milano cookies and the Who Shrunk The Goldfish campaign and all, and that doesn't even count the new madness on the cereal aisle.

But I had already decided to write about weird things in my mailbox tonight, so ... I bought a few boxes of odd cereal to write about next week, and you'll just have to check out the Pepperidge Farm weirdness for yourself. (I don't know if "Excessively Chocolate" is exactly what they were called, but it was close. Not to be confused with the regular old Double Chocolate Milanos, which have extra filling - these have a chocolate cookie. Next: Excessively Double Chocolate Milanos!)

Now, where was I?

It's getting so you can't trust anyone not to pull hysterical tactics with the things in your mailbox. Magazine subscriptions and mail-order catalogs are old offenders, but banks and credit cards do it too now, and I expect that any day now the last few bastions will fall, and there'll be an "Urgent Mail Regarding Your Tax Status" from the IRS which, when opened, turns out to be an offer to buy tax-management software from them.

We have only one magazine subscription here at Stay Tuned headquarters which never resorts to deceptive pitches or hysterical prose ("Your subscription expires in only eighty-seven issues! Renew now or you're a loser!") in its mailings. No points for guessing that it's The Economist; what's a surprise is that magazines like Smithsonian and Gourmet have been known to veer into excess from time to time.

Subscribers are how magazines make money (well, that and ads), and all sorts of crazy things are perpetrated when people are desperate to get money into the coffers. I'm therefore inclined to be tolerant about the weirdness in my mailbox ... but I won't fall for any of it, either.

Recently we sent a minor address correction to Entertainment Weekly. We got back an envelope which read "New address verification enclosed." Inside was a "New Mover's Housewarming Savings Certificate." The gist: Here's the corrected address; please tell us if we got it wrong ... oh, and by the way, wouldn't you like to extend your subscription at this low, low rate?

More interestingly, my credit card company sent me a "Notice of change in terms" - at least, that's what the outside of the envelope said. Inside was the notice - printed in microscopic type on the back of the enclosed letter. The front of the letter was the standard sales pitch about how great the card was and I should use it more often and so forth.

The actual change of agreement was trivial. I recognize that they can't just include it in the next bill (they have to tell you a certain amount of time before it goes into effect), but I still came away feeling like the change of agreement was an excuse to send the sales pitch.

These are very mild examples of deception, to be sure - nothing like the stuff the sweepstakes people or the long distance services pull - but they're from unexpected quarters. If I've bought a subscription, I don't expect to continue to get more sales pitches. If I have a credit card, I don't want to be told to use it more and more - as I generally try to do the opposite.

(Don't write me and tell me about the horrid practice of cards penalizing people for paying off their balances too quickly and not using their card enough. I know about it and it's execrable. But I won't have a card that does that.)

Another type of mailbox madness has to do with the way your mail gets addressed. "Occupant" is so passe. How does the modern direct-mailer avoid the tedious business of providing actual names on his or her bulk mail, while yet managing to provide that personal touch?

By getting creative with the addressee. We've seen "To the woman at [address]" before, and "Telephone Customer" (on a long-distance solicitation), and several other variants. Recently the winner-to-date arrived. It was for a well-known national dating service (I'll avoid giving their name here, to avoid embarrassing the people who may be using it) and it came delivered to "Current Single Resident."

I wonder if they even realize that this kind of blatant pigeonholing could be construed as insulting? Or maybe that's the point ("Hey, single people are losers, you really need us, see?") Perhaps I'm only being touchy because there are two nominally single people living at Stay Tuned HQ, but they are both quite spoken for. So much for assumptions, eh?

I used to do a fair amount of fooling around with fake addresses, back in the days when I had a couple of post office boxes to play with. It was useful for ordering items which didn't fit my gender or where I wanted to trace what lists my name was being sold to. I don't recall that I ever used it because I was embarrassed about buying something, since that's not the kind of thing I get embarrassed about.

I don't do that anymore, but I've noticed a couple of cases which provide just as indelible a trail.

At MacWorld, a computer convention I attended regularly until it left Boston, you get to program the badge you wear on the floor. Various vendors will ask you to swipe your badge through a card reader so they can collect your information and send you a catalog or what-have-you. What some people don't realize is that the database of all registrants is also sold as a mailing list. Unless you specifically say (when you're filling out your badge) that you don't want to be listed, you're on it.

The badge has a second line of name information, for use as a job title. I got silly with it every time; many others do too. Programmers in particular are likely to put things like "MPEG God" or "Hapless Hacker" in lieu of real titles. It separates them from the suits, who use the title line to crow about the size of their ... well, suffice to say that some people take the titles too seriously and some not seriously enough.

The point is, people who are using that mailing list to find me nearly always include the title. And when I see something which has "Tired Debugger" or one of the many other lines I've used over the years beneath my name, straight into the trash it goes. It's a guarantee that a human never looked at my data before sending the mail.

Almost as good is a domain registration. As of this writing I have four internet domains registered in my name. They are good for a plethora of spam - email or paper. But the company name, required by InterNIC, doesn't really exist. So if I get mail, as I did the other day, addressed to anyone or anything at that company, into the trash it goes.

Ultimately, of course, it would be nice if these people realized their folly and didn't send the mail in the first place, thus avoiding a waste of my time and their paper. On the other hand, I'd have less to write about.


[February 2007:] These days I also use a special email address on my domain registries so that I can tell when email spam arrived via that method.

I went back and checked on the actual name of the Milano cookies. It was "Intensely Chocolate." Added to the Double Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Orange, Mint, and regular varieties, that brings the final score to ... a strong victory for line extension. Since then they have probably changed it around a few dozen more times (I saw an Amaretto flavor the other day). Some things are not worth keeping track of too closely.

and now back to our program

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