The War On Authenticity: I Get Letters


I like The Great Courses, I really do. A couple years ago when I was doing a lot of driving, I used to listen to them fairly often; they’re interesting, they get really enthusiastic and excellent teachers, and the topics are pretty diverse.

Too bad they’ve joined the war on authenticity.

war

Clearly the idea is to fool me into thinking that it’s a hand-written letter from a human – not just any human – their CEO – and therefore I should open it and read it. Look how the return address label is just slightly crooked, as if it were applied by a human. The “handwriting” on the address and the postage are perfectly straight, though. The blue ink makes it look somewhat more hand-signed. Fake, fake, fake, fake…

The subtext of this packaging is “don’t just throw me away!”  But it’s a con; it’s inauthentic. It guarantees that not only will I throw away anything I ever get from the great courses (unless it’s an actual handwritten apology from their marketing person) but I’ll probably never bother checking their website again, either.

I wonder what was in it? Maybe a discount certificate? Or money? It’s trash.

I have actually gotten glossy printed catalogues from the great courses, and have flipped through them and bought stuff. So the glossy marketing that was clearly glossy marketing: that worked!! It says “Hey! You bought from us before! Now here’s new stuff you can buy!”  What an authentic message that was.

Comments

  1. JMatta says

    I have gotten numerous pieces of mail like this in the last few years. There are a few charities that my wife and I have donated to that seem particularly fond of them.

    In other news, going by that address, you live about 100 miles west of where I grew up, cool.

  2. komarov says

    The next step: yellowing parchment, folded up and sealed with a ‘hand-stamped’ wax seal. Look, you can see how it’s off-centre, and here the wax has run a bit before hardening. On the upside it would once again be easy to pick out the hardcopy spam. “Hm, it’s either a furniture catalogue or a long lost letter from Thomas Jefferson.”

  3. says

    JMatta@#1:
    There are a few charities that my wife and I have donated to that seem particularly fond of them.

    What I don’t get is that the marketing idiots who send these things seem to be reading some book that says “if you fool your readership, they will appreciate you more.” Uh. No. I am tempted to write them a letter explaining this. You know: by hand. And include a printout of my posting.

    In other news, going by that address, you live about 100 miles west of where I grew up, cool.

    You grew up somewhere around Centre Hall or Boalsburg?

  4. says

    komarov@#2:
    The next step: yellowing parchment, folded up and sealed with a ‘hand-stamped’ wax seal. Look, you can see how it’s off-centre, and here the wax has run a bit before hardening.

    Vellum or go home!

  5. says

    I’m wondering: would it be too much to have a script font that had like three or four versions for letters, consistently used depending on the letters before and afterwards? I mean, it’s a bit obvious when the letter is the exact same one twice in a row…

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ Gilliel
    Clearly you are insulting the great scribes!. A really good scribe probably could do that. See Magna Carta. Now the change of finding some one with that skill willing to address a letter to Marcus, well ….

    @Marcus
    Re Vellum
    Very expensive but the UK Parliament is still using it.

  7. blf says

    Some years ago I was plagued with the opposite version, a very neatly “typed” envelope and letter on seemingly high-quality paper with embossed logo, informing me I’d won some lottery. Obviously fake, as I do not enter lotteries, it was sent from Spain to my then-address in France, was written in English, and (as I now recall) was attempting to obtain my banking account details so that the supposed winnings could be deposited. I got three or four in less than a year. And comparing the different envelopes and letters, the “typing” was suspiciously identical (and had not embossed the paper the way real typewriters do). I have no recollection now of the “signatures”…

  8. cubist says

    sez giliell: “…would it be too much to have a script font that had like three or four versions for letters, consistently used depending on the letters before and afterwards?”
    As far as the technology is concerned? No, it wouldn’t. OpenType fonts can be created to do tricks like automatically substitute ligatures for their component glyphs, and what you’re asking about here is pretty much the same kind of thing. See [ http://figs-lab.com/en/datalegreya ] for a pretty nifty example of what can be done alone these lines.

    Of course, creating all the necessary alternate versions of letterforms takes a lot of extra effort, hence is more expensive, so it’s not at all clear if any spammer would be willing to spend the necessary quantity of money to commission such a font…

  9. Johnny Vector says

    Reminds me of the exact opposite situation, when my wife got a small letter with an address that had clearly been hand-typed on a typewriter. This was in 2004, and her first thought was “who addresses envelopes with a typewriter??” This is because it had been 3 months since she had (hand-)written to Stephen Sondheim asking if we could possibly meet him when we were at out-of-town previews of his next show, and thus had forgotten to expect a reply.

    That was about as authentic as it gets! (BTW, he did meet us, and it was glorious. If you come to our house she will tell you the whole story, with gusto.)

    As for fake-hand-addressed envelopes, I dump ’em too.

  10. says

    @Giliell, #5
    If you want letter variants and ligatures depending on surrounding letters, you’d have to spring for a professional comic lettering font; they do that kind of thing.  But that’s too rich for marketing drones.
     

    @Marcus
    You forget that this type of obvious inauthenticity is a great filter to separate the gullible from the perceptive.  Which of these two groups do you think the marketing drones are interested in reaching?  It’s the same reason why so much email spam is laughably obvious: the spammers want only people dumb enough to believe that the “prince of Nigeria” would email them.

  11. says

    Sebastian Weinberg@#11:
    You forget that this type of obvious inauthenticity is a great filter to separate the gullible from the perceptive. Which of these two groups do you think the marketing drones are interested in reaching? It’s the same reason why so much email spam is laughably obvious: the spammers want only people dumb enough to believe that the “prince of Nigeria” would email them.

    I have heard the “great filter” theory but the spammers don’t really seem to care who they snag because they don’t have to. They’re just dealing with small probability hits in very large numbers. It’d take them seconds more to make their spam look spammier, or less spammy, and they don’t appear to care enough to do either.

  12. komarov says

    What would be the point of that kind of deliberate filtering? The spammers have already gone through the trouble (if any) of sending someone a letter or an e-mail. All they’d do by making their spam more obvious to filter out the ‘gullible’ is decrease the likelihood of someone falling for their tricks.

    P.S.: I’m fairly optimistic that parchment would be the final stage. After that we’re getting close to clay tablets* or painted rocks. Marketing would probably shy away from the postage. Oh, and vellum costs extra while studies have shown absolutely no improvement in ad effectiveness. So of course we’re going to use it!

    *wax is, I assume, too brittle

  13. Dunc says

    It’s the same reason why so much email spam is laughably obvious: the spammers want only people dumb enough to believe that the “prince of Nigeria” would email them.

    Scammers, not spammers. Scammers need to invest time and effort in follow-up, and therefore have a motivation to filter out the less gullible. Spammers don’t.

  14. JMatta says

    Marcus Ranum@#3
    Centre Hall and Boalsburg are something like 30 or 40 miles from Morrisdale, I grew up a little northwest of Danville (a little outside a tiny borough called Washingtonville).

    As for writing them a letter by hand, its too much work to write them a letter explaining these things when it is going to bounce off their heads. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that these things probably work. They usually have a 35% chance of fooling me. I open all of them, just to make sure they didn’t put enough personal info in them for me to want to shred it, and assuming they didn’t (only a couple of cc card companies have done that) I dump it all in the recycling.

  15. says

    Please remember: this is not from scammers. This is from “legitimate marketing” professionals working for an established and successful company.

    Those marketing professionals decided to try to fool their customers for some reason. We already know why the scammers are trying to fool their customers!

  16. Dunc says

    Those marketing professionals decided to try to fool their customers for some reason.

    Force of habit, I would guess…

  17. Lonely Panda, e.s.l. says

    I’ve gotten more and more of these as well. The “presort” on the precancel mark is a dead giveaway though, since that means there were at least 500 letters sent out in the same batch.
    As a glowing example of marketing failure, I periodically receive one of these “handwritten” letters addressed to my deceased father-in-law’s deceased ex-wife; neither she nor my father-in-law had ever lived at this address.

  18. multitool says

    #19:
    Taking it to the next level: Handwritten letters FROM your deceased relatives. Better open those!

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