Drunken Youth

By Ray Schultz

Oh, our poor young people. Parents who worry about them often ask if liquor advertisers target youth.

Of course they do, you fools. Where else are they going to get new customers? The Boomers may drink more as they sink into dementia, but there’s a certain churn.

Rolling Stone magazine put it best in an ad in the Liquor Handbook some 30 years ago:

“Meet over 2 ½ million young adults who read Rolling Stone…They’re affluent, they’re thirsty, they’re deciding right now what they’ll be drinking for the next 20 years. Who needs ‘em?? You do: they’re your future.”

By the way, this was around the time the magazine ran a lurid article on teenage alcoholism. Talk about having it both ways.

Has anything changed?

When Prohibition was repealed in 1932, alcohol was less of a problem for both young and old. Fewer than a third of the American people drank at all and statistics on the damage from steady boozing were only a fraction of what they later became (perhaps because there was less research being done).

This changed in the 1950’s, when now-prosperous ex-G.I..’s created the home entertainment revolution. Booze was now more acceptable in the home, and millions of people set up bars in their houses to serve it.

Alcohol was also seen as more chic. And why wouldn’t it be? Liquor flowed once every eight minutes on television, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Then as now, the most common kind of liquor advertising showed sexy young people enjoying a drink. They could have been playing with toy boats, as in a Smirnoff’s ad, or sitting around a fireplace. The message was that a person who drank the beverage being advertised would enjoy wealth, sex and social status like the people in the ad.

Which was pure rot. A person who made a career out of swilling what the people in the ad were drinking would not only get further away from wealth, sex and social status, but could end up with no wife, no house, no worldly possessions whatsoever.

Naturally, liquor companies soft-peddled that sad fact. But they hinted at it in occasional ads that seemed to appeal directly to alcoholism. For example, Smirnoff’s showed a bottle of vodka lying smashed on the ground, with a caption reading, “Did you ever see a grown man cry?”

That wasn’t the worst of it. As we now know, liquor advertising was (and still is) full of subliminal messages, which the industry pretended to only dimly understand. One person who understood them was Professor Wilson Byron Key, a former advertising executive, who wrote the book Subliminal Seduction.

In Senate hearings, Key showed slides of several full-color ads in national magazines. To the astonishment of the Senatorial audience, he pointed out various nightmare images such as death’s heads and devils masks, plus assorted sexual imagery, and the letters S-E-X, all superimposed on the ice cubes in the glasses.

If the reader looked carefully enough at the ice cubes floating in almost any liquor ad, he, too, would see macabre and sexually provocative images winking at him. “The subliminal content appears to be about two things—sex and death,” Professor Key said. He then explained that most people will never even realize that they are seeing such a thing, but that it will register in their subconscious, so that at a later time, when they are shopping in a liquor store, they will find themselves looking for a certain brand without knowing why. “These are subliminal stimuli, not perceived at any conscious level,” he added. “They are perceived at the unconscious level.”

The liquor industry claimed that these masterpieces of hallucinogenic art were just that—hallucinations. “They’re ordinary ice cubes,” one ad writer said. But Key debunked that. “If you have ever been around commercial photography, you would know that this is an impossibility. You can’t photograph ice. The stuff melts under hot lights.” As far as the professor was concerned, these images were most skillfully air-brushed in.

Granted, these ads weren’t all directed at the young. But many new products were. For example, vintners learned that young people were drinking wine to supplement their marijuana. In response, Ernest and Julio Gallo, introduced pop wines like Ripple and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, and the Heublein Corporation brought out Annie Green Springs wine. When wine faded, and the love generation turned to harder booze, the wineries switched their focus to the teenage audience. Heublein introduced Hereford Cows, an alcoholic milkshake available in flavors like chocolate, strawberry and banana.

Think about that the next time you want to criticize Millennials for their drinking habits.

What’s more, people barely old enough to drink and vote were not the only prime market. The Gallos created a libation called Thunderbird after reading marketing reports that said black consumers were fond of mixing white port wine with lemon juice. Thunderbird sold 2.5 million cases during its first year. It’s not clear who bought them, but the product later became a staple on interracial skid rows across the country.

Is it true that the industry had nobody in mind for these ads and products? If you believe that, you shouldn’t work in marketing.

“An industry that spends over $500 million a year on advertising certainly has a good idea of who buys its products and why,” said Dr. Eugene Noble, director of the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, back in those halcyon days.

It still does.

The Shameful Sham

By Ray Schultz

I shouldn’t admit this, but sometimes I get nostalgic for the scam artists of the 1980s. Even the worst of them were fun to cover as a reporter.

Well, not to worry. The old rogues may be gone. But the free market provides.

Say hello to E.M. Systems & Services, LLC, and its web of “entities and fictitious business names.”

This outfit cold-called consumers and promised to reduce their credit card interest rates, according to an amended complaint announced last week by the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General.

But the victims, who paid from $695 to $1,495 apiece, got bupkis for their money, the lawsuit alleges.

Most did not “achieve any debt relief at all, but instead found themselves saddled with even more debt than before because of the fees the (defendants) charged to their credit cards,” the plaintiffs charge.

And, of course, many never got the refunds they were promised if they failed to realize big savings (typically, $5,000 in 90 days), the court papers state.

As I live and breathe, it sounds like an old-fashioned credit repair scheme. And it was conducted in the time-honored way—not online, but by phone, according to the FTC and the Florida AG.

With E.M. Systems directing them, callers working for One Easy and other telemarketing firms “identified themselves as being with ‘card services,’ ‘credit services,’ ‘card member services,’ or one of the unregistered fictitious …businesses,” the complaint charges.

Then they “took steps to win consumers’ trust and create an air of legitimacy to their sales pitch.” it adds.

The callers told prospects that they already had “the names of some of their credit cards and/or the amount of their credit card debt,” the complaint continues.

Despite this purported knowledge, they then asked consumers for their credit card numbers, and billed them while they were still on the phone before any services could be rendered, the papers state.

And once the fees were paid, many consumers “never heard from the Debt Relief Defendants again,” and their “attempts at further communication were ignored,” the complaint continues.

Others were sent packets of information and papers to fill out. But they “rarely, if ever,” got the promised interest rate reductions, the FTC and AG maintain.

Another defendant, CardReady, arranged for at least 26 shell merchant accounts to “be used to process credit card payments,” the government plaintiffs charge. And this led to illegal credit card laundering and factoring of credit card transactions, they add.

CardReady, a so-called Independent Sales Organization, “maintained an agreement with a credit card processor named First Pay Solutions,” the complaint says.

This part of the scheme unraveled when “11 of the 26 shell LLCs were placed on the MasterCard Alert to Control High- risk (“MATCH”) list for excessive chargebacks,” according to the complaint.

Here’s a link to the complaint if you want to read it yourself.

But let’s not prejudge. This is a civil action, and it is yet to be litigated. The alleged villains may end up signing a consent decree with no admission of guilt, or they could get off entirely.

What a throwback, though—it’s enough to make you feel young again. Assuming there’s an ounce of truth in the charges, though, I doubt that the people who were snookered are amused.

Privacy in the 19th Century

By Ray Schultz

There’s one small error in the white paper, Privacy and Advertising Mail, by the UC Berkeley School of Law.

The paper quotes a 1917 editorial: “Mail solicitation of business by printed circular has become an intolerable annoyance, to which all are subjected whose addresses appear in the directory or the telephone books.”* And it states that this was “an unusually early instance of stated concerns about advertising mail.”

That’s not quite true. Critics were complaining about junk mail long before 1917. And they sometimes referred to what we now call the privacy issue.

In 1875, in a article titled, “Fancy Advertising,” The New York Times reported on a man whose letter and Post Office boxes were “daily ‘made the recipients’… of a lot of envelopes, which he is put to the trouble of opening, and which he finds contain only advertisements of articles that he does not want to buy, or of companies or professional persons that he does not wish to employ.”

That piece didn’t mention mailing lists, but the vice crusader Anthony Comstock touched on the subject in 1880, in his book Frauds Exposted, when writing about lotteries and other types of frauds. “Any person who ever wrote a letter to a lottery, or other advertised scheme, is liable to have a large circle of correspondents,” he wrote. “The name once obtained must go the round of the fraternity, and, when thus used, is either kept for a new scheme by the same fraud or else sold to another one of the brotherhood.”

Case in point: The use of boarding school catalogues. “At last the child reaches the school, and his or her name appears upon the roll and is printed in the catalogue,” Comstock wrote. “These catalogues are sought for by those who send circulars through the mails advertising obscene and unlawful wares.”

Comstock added that names could also be had by “buying old letters from other dealers for the sake of the names, or by sending circulars to postal clerks and others through the country, offering prizes for a list of the names of youth of both sexes twenty-one years of age, or by purchasing addressed envelopes of those who make a business of collecting names, and then addressing envelopes to supply parties doing business through the mails.”

Granted, Comstock was more upset over what people were being offered by mail than how: privacy was a secondary issue. And legislators failed to mention privacy when they banned lotteries from the mail in 1890. But the subject came up again in a whole new context.

Medical Privacy

In 1904, Ladies Home Journal reported on the letters sent by women to patent medicine advertisers.

“Not one in a thousand of these letters ever reaches the eye of the ‘doctor’ to whom they are addressed,” the article said. “There wouldn’t be hours enough in the day to read them even if he had the desire. On the contrary, these letters from women of a private and delicate nature are opened and read by young men and girls; they go through not fewer than eight different hands before they reach a reply; each in turn reads them, and if there is anything ‘spicy’, you will see the heads of two or three girls get together and enjoy (!) the ‘spice.’ Very often these ‘spicy bits’ are taken home and shown to the friends and families of these girls and men! Time and again have I seen this done: time and again have I been handed over a letter by one of the young fellows with the remark; “Read this: isn’t that rich/” only to read of the recital of some trouble into which a young girl has fallen, or some mother’s sacred story of her daughter’s fall!”

Worse, these “sacredly confidential” letters were offered through letter brokers—“clearing-houses where patent-medicine frauds and quack doctors exchange, sell, and rent letters,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in Collier’s magazine in 1906. (In effect, he was describing the early mailing list business).

This came to an end, too, but not because anyone objected to the misuse of personal information. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring that patent medicine advertisers list their ingredients and not make exaggerated claims. Many firms went out of business.

But the sale and trading of names survived, and it was duly noted—before 1917. In 1913, The Kansas City Star wrote, “It probably does not occur to (the average man) that by buying something by mail he has made his name a commodity in itself and become a target for commercial correspondents as long as he lives and probably long after a tombstone has been erected to him on some grassy hillside.”

 *Richard B. Kielbowicz, Origins of the Junk-Mail Controversy: A
Media Battle over Advertising and Postal Policy, 5(2) JOURNAL OF
POLICY HISTORY 248, 253 (1993).

Click here for a related article.

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 14: The Road To Wellville

By Ray Schultz

Painfully shy, so thin he was rejected for insurance policies, Edward W. Proctor did not look like a salesman. But his employer Charles Guild wanted him to sell, so Proctor did, starting around 1900. This took him to outfits like the Swamp Root Co., maker of the Swamp Root kidney and bladder cure, of Binghamton, New York. Asked what Swamp Root was good for, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, the founder’s son, replied, “About one-and-a-half to two million a year.”

And it brought Proctor to the D.A. Williams Medical Company, seller of a “uthrethral balm” to Civil War veterans. “Exposure, miasma, bad food, hardships of every description—these and not the bullets are responsible for the extremely rapid death-rate among the veterans,” it said in a direct mail letter.

In short, Proctor was selling mailing lists in the format of the time: Letters from customers. Guild explained it in an advertisement: “Letters for Rent. We carry millions of all kinds of letters received in reply to newspaper and magazine advertising, which we are offering for copy at low rates. Our specialty is Nervous Debility and Medical letters.”

Fourteen when his father died, Proctor left school and went to work in an ice house, then as a clerk in a law firm. He wanted to be a lawyer, but his main job after seven years was getting his bosses’ hats shined. So he took accounting courses.

Then he was hired by Guild, a failed advertising agent from Boston. Guild’s first firm had gone into receivership, the result of his financial mismanagement. So he moved to New York, and applied himself to selling ad space in mail order newspapers like Westerner.

This was a step down. These rags were mailed to people who hadn’t subscribed; stacks of them piled up in backwoods post offices. Now, thanks to rural free delivery, they were delivered right to the door. “These disgusting prints thus force their way unsolicited into the homes throughout the country and their demoralizing influence it would be hard to overestimate,” a critic wrote.

The average issue contained fiction like “The Fortunes of a Factory Girl,” jokes and cracker-barrel wisdom and columns on subjects like how to milk cows in winter, all written by “unknown people, whose acquaintance with philology, grammar and other essentials of successful word-weaving has been very slight.”

They also contained patent medicine ads, one more unbeleivable than the next. In a single issue of the Homemaker, Dr. A.J. Hill said that Preparia could “relieve the ailments of pregnancy,” Dr. Mixer sold a “sure cure” for cancer, Dr. Chas W. Green offered one for fits, and Milo Co. promised that “Any woman can cure her husband, son or brother of liquor drinking by secretly placing this remedy in his coffee, tea or food.”

Some of these firms went out of business soon after starting, but not the H.H. Warner Co. Hulbert Harrington Warner Warner had made a fortune selling office safes. In mid-life, he came down with kidney trouble, and the only remedy at hand was a potion made up of glycerin, water and alcohol.

In 1879, Warner bought the rights to this purported miracle drug from the doctor who created it and started advertising it as Warner’s Safe Cure and Kidney Cure, He soon was spending almost a million dollars per year on advertising, and his ad department was “the most important and principal feature of this concern,” a reporter wrote.

Warner was also active in the mail. He sent 35 million letters and almanacs a year, and the Rochester Post Office bought the first automatic machine to handle them. In one promotion, Warner invited readers to send $1 and a urine sample for a “free treatment by mail.”

Many medicine sellers did this, but few examined the specimens; those that did simply passed the vials over a flame. If the liquid turned dark, that meant sugar; white meant albumen. The treatments were the same for both. Pranksters who knew this sent horse urine to the Swamp Root Co., and said it was from a “Caucasian male.”

Warner’s writers moved on. They amused almanac readers by asking them to find spelling errors in their copy, and by describing a conversation on a new device:

Hello! What is it?

Please connect the telephone with Warner’s Safe Remedies Establishment.

Hello! Who is it? What’s wanted?

I do not believe you know me, or would if I should tell you who I am. I want to talk with you a few moments.

All right! Go ahead.

I want to ask you something about your pamphlet, your establishment, kidney disease, and lots of other things. I know you have got a good medicine, but I want to know something about how to keep well.

Whew! Tut, tut, tut—louder! I can only just hear you talking about keeping well, our pamphlet, kidneys, etc.

That’s it. You understand me now. Can you hear?

Yes, but before we get through with this subject, we would burn the wires off. Come to Rochester some day, and we will go through the entire subject.

Yes, but if I should come to Rochester I would take lots of your time, and you would get tired of talking.

Never mind. Come on! Be glad to see you. Good-bye.

Hold on a moment—one more word—may I bring my wife, too?

Yes, have her come, and the whole family: the neighbors, too, if you like.

Warner sold the company, then was ousted for manipulating the stock price in his own favor. But he had set the standard for everyone, and Guild was able to land some of these advertisers as clients.

Proctor felt that he had finally found a career. And he applied himself to it in a way that his boss Mr. Guild never would. Soon, he met rival letter brokers like Herbert H. Hull, who owned a million letters, and Frank B. Swett, who had even more. “There are five million chronic sick and incurables in the United States, and I’ve got letters from one million of them right there in that building,” said one such broker, pointing to his warehouse. They were convivial fellows who cooperated with each other even as they competed and what Proctor couldn’t learn from Guild he learned from them. He commenced his education.

He learned that the value of a letter decreased as it got older.

He learned that a person who wrote out of curiosity was not as good a prospect as one who knew what he would receive.

He learned that the names of mail order buyers were better than those copied from directories or clipped from newspapers.

He learned, too, that some of the most coveted names were those of sick people rejected for life insurance policies; treatments could be sold to these unfortunates.

More valuable still were the letters held by Lydia Estes Pinkham, of Lynn, Mass. Her Vegetable Compound, an herbal concoction with an 18% alcohol content, was guaranteed to “ease women through the Change of Life, dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus, and cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints, all Ovarian troubles, Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and the consequent spinal Weakness.”

Pinkham’s “mild Quaker face” appeared no only on bottles of the compound, but in all circulars and newspaper ads. “Many small newspaper offices possessed no cut of a woman’s face except that of Lydia’s maternal countenance, which occasionally was shifted from an advertising to a news column to do double duty as Queen Victoria,” wrote historian James Harvey Young.

Every ad for the Vegetable Compound invited readers to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham at Lynn, Mass., and she will advise you,” and millions of women did. But Pinkham insisted that the letters were “opened by a woman, read only by a woman, seen only by a woman,” and she wouldn’t rent them—to anyone. “They can’t be bought,” a broker said. “The old girl won’t even answer a letter about them. I don’t know what sort of a plant she has at Lynn and it doesn’t matter much, as her files are worth more than the plant.”

Rubbish, said another; Pinkham’s advertisements are “so wide in their scope…that hardly a woman can read them without feeling that she is a sufferer… they are practically worthless after written.” (Little did they know that Lydia was dead, and had been since 1883—the company was now being run by her children).

The tone of Proctor’s talks with these brokers can be inferred from an 1890s newspaper account, in which a young man meets a letter broker on a train.

“I am a dealer in old letters, and am now on my way home with a check for $250 in my pocket which is all velvet,” the broker said. “This check I received for the use, for one month, of 10,000 letters, of which I am the owner.”

The older man was happy to explain the business.

“You, in the course, of your life, have written in reply to some advertisement, asking information in regard to the article advertised, or sent a request for a sample to be forwarded, and enclosed the necessary price, otherwise you have been different from most persons.

“The letters received in answer to such advertisements have a distinct market value among parties who deal in novelties. They are better in every way than lists made up from directories, representing, as they do, interested parties, or, in other words, persons who, attracted by the catchy wording of advertisements will be still more liable to bite after reading lengthy circulars with arguments as to why they should purchase.”

The broker went to his compartment, and returned with samples.

“For these letters I pay at the rate of from $30 to $50 per thousand, and thus become the sole proprietor of them,” he said. “I have my customers, to whom I rent them at the uniform price of $50 per thousand for the first month’s use. They find them very valuable in sending out their circulars, and on their return these letters become a part of my stock in trade, being re-let at constantly decreasing prices, according to the number of parties through whose hands they have passed, until they remain marketable for many years at so low a figure as $3 per thousand for 30 day’s use.”

But these were not as valuable as his medical letters.

“I have got a number of hundred thousand of such as these, which we call ‘the blooming sucker variety,’ and for which I pay as high as $75 to $100 per thousand,” the broker continued. “These I let to my medical customers for, say, $125 per thousand for the first thirty days, reducing the price afterward.”

What good were these letters to a patent medicine seller? The broker explained it. “Did you ever go fishing more than once to a pond where you had spent a whole day trying to get a bite? Oh, no, you always go where you have been able to fill your basket before, and it is just the same in fishing for men.”

“Why, my dear boy, some of these medical practitioners in special diseases will not sell their letters for love or money. Why? Because after they have worked the fools under one name for all the money they can get out of them, the doctors then address a letter to the innocents under another name, saying they have learned that he (the patient) had been under the treatment of those unmitigated quacks, giving his former name, and telling why they condoled with him for such a misfortune, and wishing that he could have come under their treatment, which could but prove successful. Nine times out of ten they catch the gudgeon, not only the second, but even the third time.”

Chapter 15: Sacredly Confidential