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Confessions of a Mail-Order Rip-Off Artist

March 11th, 2005 by Bob Bly

I hate to admit it, but I?m a mail order rip-off artist ? but as a consumer, not a marketer.

And if you follow the advice I?m about to give you, you can get some of the greatest deals on Earth ? by ?ripping off? direct marketing companies.

I don?t mean illegal or immoral rip-offs, such as ordering a product and then not paying the bill ? knowing full well the direct marketing company is unlikely to ever collect such a small debt from you.

I mean taking advantage of direct response offers, keeping the premium, and then immediately canceling or returning the product ? just to get the premium!

For instance, Gevalia Coffee has the most incredible offer you can imagine in their print ads ? sign up for their monthly coffee service, and get the first shipment of two coffees for $10 ? plus a FREE coffee maker!

We took the bait. Sure enough, you get two delicious gourmet flavored coffees ? well worth the $10 alone ? PLUS a beautiful coffee maker.

We canceled the service as soon as we got the machine and our first two coffees, so the whole kit and caboodle cost us a grand total of ten bucks.

What?s the lesson here? Direct marketing companies routinely make overly generous offers on the ?front end? to get you in as a customer ? because they know that a large number of people who take the bait will stay to buy more ? and so the offer becomes profitable.

Another example is Easton Press. I accepted their offer of a beautiful leather-bound edition of Moby Dick and paid just $5.95 (the average price of their leather bound classics is around $50.)

I immediately opted out of the continuity program (“100 Greatest Books:), so you?d think I got something for (almost) nothing from them.

But they kept sending me more mailings for other series and single books. And now there?s a pile of about $300 worth of handsome leather-bound books on the shelves of my home library ? and countless hours of enjoyable reading ahead for me.

So, who?s really coming out ahead here?

Well, I love the books. And Easton Press is making money.

So I guess we BOTH are winners here, which is how good DM works. Right?


This entry was posted on Friday, March 11th, 2005 at 2:50 pm and is filed under Direct Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

56 responses about “Confessions of a Mail-Order Rip-Off Artist”

  1. Jason Bedunah said:

    Man, I kinda think your Gevalia move is in the gray area, maybe even on the unethical side if you pre-meditated it. Don’t you think? I’m I the only one here that thinks this?

    — Jason Bedunah

  2. Neal Reifsnyder said:

    I agree with Jason. Although, along with unethical, the word pathetic comes to mind. Apparently Easton Press must agree, as they have changed their promotion to:

    “Just $59.75 per volume. You will receive a new book each month. Order now and receive your second book FREE after paying for your first volume!”

    Thanks Bly. Good to see strong ethics in practice!

  3. Jim Logan said:

    You’re one of my favorite gurus Bob. If this post is a test of sorts or a joke of some kind…you’re a genius! I keep waiting for Allen Funt to pop out from behind my screen.

    If you’re serious…that ain’t right.

  4. Gerold Braun said:

    Your last sentence, the win-win idea in it, makes my day. That’s how win-win works: The smart (or down-and-dirty) one wins, and the other (or stupid) one loses.
    You’ve pointed it out, brilliantly.

  5. RichW said:

    There’s two things going on here. First is that as Bob would probably tell you, it’s just math. Gevalia and others who make these offers have tested enough to have a good idea of how many machines are going out the door and not coming back with orders. So they’re already figuring on taking those hits and have built those costs into their price. No harm, no foul.

    The second is Bob channelling the spirit of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” and saying in effect, “Hey kids, here’s how to get free stuff.” Which, given his influence will get through the blogosphere in no time, resulting in a mass run on “free” Gevalia coffee urns, which ultimately throws off Gevalia’s long history of test results and send them back to the drawing board scratching their heads as to what the hell went wrong with their campaign metrics and execution. And they don’t have a blog to respond.

    At which point Bob can step in and offer his consulting services to fix the problem.

    A free coffee urn AND a new client. Devious.

    Yes, that last part is tongue-and-cheek.

    Then again, just about all of us who went to college in the 70s and 80s knows somebody who took Columbia House’s offer of 12 records for 99 cents and never ordered another. This stuff happens more than we think. It’s just that we’ve never seen an industry pro condoning the behavior.

    Once this post makes the rounds and everybody gets their $.02 in, I imagine we won’t be seeing a post from Bob on how to take advantage of money back guarantees. At least not until he’s ready to retire.

    And to think that when Bob’s blog started, he was wondering what effect blogs could have on direct marketing. Well, we’re about to find out.

  6. Bob Bly said:

    What you are all missing is that both Gevalia and Easton still win big (and I maybe should have been clearer about this):

    1. As I said, I didn’t stay in Easton’s first continuity series … but their follow up mailings sold me well over $300 in books (now closer to $500) at full price … making me a good customer (they have stepped up mail frequency and I am buying like crazy).

    2. Gevalia will get tons of trial orders from my post from people who intend to just get the coffee maker, but will stay on the program because, once they drink some, it’s great coffee and they will be hooked (After tasting it, I would have stayed on, too, but I am trying to cut down on caffeine).

  7. Jim Logan said:

    With your explanation, I agree.

  8. Derek Scruggs said:

    Aside from what everyone else has said about Gevalia doing the math and taking the risk, remember that they promote this as a free offer. It’s not “free if you stay a customer for X months” or “free if you’re a deadbeat, unethical person.”

    They’re applying two principles: 1) the financial gamble that the product is good enough to get you hooked and 2) the principle of reciprocity, which is explained well in Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and also at this link (PDF file):

  9. DA said:

    From a practical slant, I think that the larceny in all of us would be tempted, but that the more mature among us would find the urge controlled by the knowledge that there are inevitable hassles associated with the effort to get sumptin’ fur nuttin’. (Time sink documenting the opt-out correspondence, nag mailings back, mailbox full of crap we aren’t really interested in, potential hit to the credit report/score, yadda, yadda, yadda). –DA

  10. George said:

    Sounds like good advice but eventually it costs the consumer more if the “rip off” approach becomes an accepted norm. We cannot control what others do but we can control our own actions and how we influence others. It is the collective small actions of “doing the right thing” that makes this a better or worse world to live in. That includes whether we rip off “direct response” offers or not.

  11. Case said:

    Nice way of laying it out in an ironical way. I would say that it´s more of a win-win-win – situation with 1-0 to the marketers, again. Why not rip off the “rip offers” but still get ripped off because in the end the “rip offers” win. Why ? They wouldn´t be doing it if it didn´t work, right?

  12. Bruce DeBoer said:

    I’m not sure ethics are at issue here even though it doesn’t sound right. Bob made a trade with both Gevalia and Easton: his name and address for a possible buzz agent for seeding products as well as a possible customer. While Bob didn’t intend on every buying more, through this blog he has given them ample ROI.

    Bob likes coffee so let’s give him OUR coffee and a coffee maker (to be sure he takes the bate), then have him pay something to defray the cost of our marketing (whatever we think our potential buzz agents will pay) program. If he never buys another package of coffee we are betting that at least he will give our coffee a try and suggest to his neighbor that they try it. Even if Bob’s plan was to get the coffee maker and end the relationship, what if he liked the coffee so much that he NEEDED more?

    The book example is more obvious but it’s similar. When Gevalia reads this blog post, I doubt they’ll be discouraged if their measurements showed the promotion worked.

    While I don’t think it’s something to brag about, I think “unethical” is a little strong. Perhaps opportunistic is more appropriate. It’s all part of the game. Bob’s encouragement to take advantage of the game plays right into the hands of the marketer. They WANT you to take advantage of them.


  13. Jason said:

    Is Bob unethical for opting out after receiving the coffee maker?

    It sounds like both sides of the agreement upheld their contractual obligations. Bob paid for what he received. He cancelled as Gevalia said he could with no further obligation on his part.

    No, there is no ethical lapse here. Perhaps Gevalia lost money on the deal. That is not Bob’s ethical problem. Even though Bob knows they want him to keep buying coffee, they have released him from any further obligation. Bob did not mislead Gevalia, he accepted their offer. How does that make him a bad person?

    Now if Bob had been obligated to continue buying but didn’t pay his agreed subscription, he would acted unethically. That didn’t happen.

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