The other day I received an envelope from Consumer. It was soliciting contributions for a raffle fundraiser. The mailing had nine raffle tickets in it. Consumer Reports was requesting that I send back the tickets with a suggested donation of $9 (one dollar for each ticket). The mailing had a lot of paper:
The raffle had a grand prize that would be the choice of an undisclosed, top-rated car or $35,000. There were a number of smaller prizes bringing the total amount up for grabs to about $50,000.
The materials included a lot of gimmicky text. Things like:
- “If you’ve been issued the top winning raffle number, then 1 of those tickets is definitely the winner or a top-rated car — or $35,000 in cash.”
- “Why risk throwing away what could be a huge pay day?”
- “There’s a very real chance you could be the winner of our grand prize car!”
Consumer Reports also indicates that they’ll send a free, surprise gift to anyone who donates $10 or more.
It feels funny to make a donate money based on the premise that I might win more than I donate, but I get it. Fundraising gimmicks work.
I don’t think it would be productive or even reasonable to pretend that humans are (or even ought to be) creatures that donate to non-profits for exclusively coldly-calculated, altruistic reasons.
That said, I get frustrated though when the gimmicks border on dishonest. Doubly so if deception is coming from an organization like Consumer Reports that brands itself as an organization committed to integrity.
One of the pieces of paper in the mailing came folded with print on each side. Here’s the first part that was visible:
Unfolding that paper and looking on the other side, I found a letter from someone involved in Consumer Reports marketing. The letter goes to some length to explain that it would be silly to not at least see if I had winning tickets. Here’s a bit of it:
This is ridiculous on several levels.
First, the multiple tickets bit is silly. It’s like the Yogi Berra line at the opening of the post. It doesn’t matter how many tickets I have unless I get more tickets than the typical person.
Second, it seems pretty obvious that Consumer Reports doesn’t care if a non-donor decides not to turn in tickets. The most plausible explanation for why Consumer Reports includes the orange letter is that people who would ignore the mailing may end up feeling guilty enough to make a donation. Checking the “I choose not to donate at this time, but please enter me in the Raffle” box on the envelope doesn’t feel great.
Finally, it makes perfect sense why I might not respond. Writing my name on each ticket, reading the materials, and mailing the tickets takes time. My odds of winning are low. I’d also have to pay for a stamp. Nothing about the rationale for not sending in the tickets is complicated. Consumer Reports knows that.
I’ll pretend that the only reason not to participate is that the stamp used to mail in the tickets isn’t free. That stamp is 55 cents at the moment. Is my expected reward greater than 55 cents?
Consumer Reports has about 6 million subscribers.
Let’s give Consumer Reports the benefit of the doubt and assume it can print everything, send initial mailings, handle the logistics of the raffle, and send gifts back to donors for only $0.50 per subscriber. That puts the promotion’s costs at about 3 million dollars. The $50,000 of prizes is trivial in comparison. Let’s assume that Consumer Reports runs the promotion based on the expectation that additional donations brought in will cover the promotion’s cost.
The suggested donation is $9. Let’s say the average, additional funding brought in by this campaign comes out to $10 per respondent.
To break even, Consumer Reports needs to have 300,000 respondents.
4/12/2019 Update: I received a second, almost-identical mailing in early April.