Sweepstakes Marketers Were Ill-Prepared to Take on the Senate

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I had never watched C-SPAN until the Senate subcommittee hearings on sweepstakes ("Sweepstakes Rumblings Reach Fever Pitch at Senate Hearing," March 15). Let's hope nobody else was watching because the four witnesses representing the direct marketing and publishing industries were largely an embarrassment.

Sure, it's a lot easier to blurt responses to a TV set than it is to sit live on the hot seat before hostile politicians on their moral grandstand. Nonetheless, it was disappointing to watch high-profile executives from our industry put to such a lame defense. They might just as well have shown up wearing prison uniforms and have their faces obscured with electronic blue dots.

I'm no big fan of sweepstakes. They dilute magazine audience editorial affinity. In recent years, sweepstakes creative executions have, indeed, been pushing the envelope, pardon the expression. But I still believe that fundamental direct marketing techniques employed by reputable companies are not immoral.

Our side did not make that point. Their testimony included bumbling apologies, timid explanations, apparent ignorance about some of their own practices and -- worst of all -- some stonewall demeanors and short answers that bordered on taking the Fifth. They allowed senators to bully them and make them sound foolish.

It took a senator to mention the national culture of pandering to human greed through state lotteries and myriad forms of legalized gambling. Nobody ran with that analogy by pointing out that sweepstakes are benign by comparison. You can play for free -- and when you do spend money, you receive merchandise in return.

When pressed about whether excerpted copy was " a lie," our witnesses sounded like graduates of the Clinton school of semantics. When pressed on whether they would agree to a list of disclaimers in headline type, nobody scolded the senators that they had no business legislating copywriting and art direction. Furthermore, nobody spoke up to defend personalization as a legitimate cornerstone of direct marketing.

There should have been a candid assertion that politicians can't dictate and the industry can't accept a creative execution that will protect the 1,000 most gullible out of 90 million. No industry is held to such a standard.

That said, our witnesses and the DMA should have come prepared to offer an action plan, including:

* An easy, quick and universal out for guardians of the clinically incompetent or compulsive. (The same people who are not protected from lottos and casinos.)

* Universal technology that will routinely flag and close the accounts of customers with excessive frequency and spending patterns. It sounds like DM heresy -- but it's only right, and the revenue impact is nominal.

If database technology at the millennium is not up to the task, perhaps our industry is not as slick as using customer information as it thinks it is. Unless there is some backroom dealing being negotiated with the politicians, the staff that prepped our side for the hearing should be demoted to data entry.

<I>John W. Woods<I>

Shore Point Associates

Guilford, CT

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