An unpleasant Discovery

I’m sorry to have deserted my post for over a month. I haven’t given up on blogging — I’ve just been putting my energies into working on another project.

However, today I had to write a letter, and just for kicks and giggles, I decided to share it here. It was written in response to a form of aggressive marketing practice that seems often to be directed at senior citizens.

How it works is that a company will send the elderly person some item that they never knowingly requested or ordered — such as a book, audio CD, or DVD — and then, weeks later, write to request payment for the item.

Now it is my understanding that, under law, one is not obligated to return or pay for an item that one never asked to be sent, but such marketing schemes play on two factors:

  1. Senior citizens’ strong sense of personal responsibility
  2. The fear or uncertainty that many seniors have vis-à-vis their memory.

In other words, grandma or grandpa isn’t entirely sure that he or she didn’t request the item, and they’re much too honest to keep it and not pay for it. And for many of them, writing a check is much more feasible than repackaging the item and dragging it down to the Post Office.

Most companies that engage in this practice will state, if confronted, that the recipient did request the item. But if pushed, most will admit that the “consent” was written in small print on some kind of sweepstakes the person may or may not have entered.

What fries my grits is that when I cared for my elderly Aunt Joan in her last years and now, living with my elderly Mom, it seems as though they each are the recipients of an extraordinary volume of both “mistaken” credit card charges and unsolicited materials. I have never had these kinds of experiences, but then, I’m still in late middle age. And I think these marketing ploys are aimed at ripping off senior citizens.

I feel strongly enough about such practices that I have written to my elected representatives about them, but nobody seems to be listening.

And that is why, now that this marketing strategy has been employed by what we previously thought was a honorable company, I have decided to share my letter publicly. If elected reps and consumer advocates don’t care about the elderly being ripped off, perhaps public exposure will embarrass the companies who play these games. Or maybe not.

Either way, here’s the letter I wrote (and if anyone would like to borrow some of my verbiage for use in similar letters to any entity employing such practices, please go right ahead):


February 17, 2010

Corey S. Powell, Editor in Chief
Discover Magazine
PO Box 1218
Minneapolis, MN 55440

Dear Mr. Powell and/or Customer Service Representative,

I am writing on behalf of my mother, Jacquelyn Van Auken, in response to a letter she received today, dated January 21, 2010, in regard to a DVD, Einstein’s Big Idea & Exploring Space: The Quest for Life, which you seem to believe you sent her.

My mother has not reviewed the DVD in question because she has not received that, or any other, DVD from Discover.

I do not know whether this item was lost in the mail or if your letter was sent in error, but either way, no DVD has been received by us.

Therefore, she will not be completing your Reply Form. Neither will she subscribe to a series of such DVDs nor will she return a DVD (which she does not have and has never received).

Jacquelyn Van Auken is not interested in receiving this DVD nor in participating in any sort of aggressive marketing scheme in which you send her items that she has not explicitly requested and then attempt to obligate her either to pay for them or go to the trouble of packaging them and mailing them back to you.

Both of us feel that such coercive, presumptive marketing schemes are inappropriate and only serve to lower our opinion of the entire Discovery organization. If you are planning to persist in such marketing efforts, we would suggest that you change your name to something more appropriate, like, say, Publishers’ Clearing House.

Please remove my mother’s name from any marketing operations whatsoever, other than requests that she re-subscribe to the Discovery magazine. Please do not mail or telephone with offers of any kind for any non-magazine-subscription products offered by Discovery or any other related or independent organization. Please remove her name from any lists of subscribers that you may sell to other organizations or entities.

She will not assume any responsibility whatsoever for any unsolicited items or material that may subsequently be sent her after this explicit, written request that she be removed from any current or future marketing campaigns.

Finally, if you cannot honor my mother’s request that you remove her from such marketing lists, she will have to reconsider her decision to continue her subscription to Discovery magazine.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

Sincerely yours,
—Candace Van Auken


Copyright © 2010 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.


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I am a writer and an activist for people who are disabled by chronic illness. I am also interested in issues related to the LGBTQIA community and to women making music.

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Posted in Consumer affairs, Exploitation of the elderly

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