Junk mail and the art of hype
By Bill Mason
The art of hype pervades advertising of all kinds. You can see
it everywhere you go. It's characterized by its extensive use
of exclamation points, big words, powerful colors, and giant pictures.
You're sure to see several trademark symbols and percentages that
they claim you will save. What they hide are the details which
are quite often exceptions to their claims and end up rendering
their savings miniscule. These details are usually confined to
"fine print" which they expect no one to read.
No where is hype more prevalent, and indeed necessary, than in
junk mail. The very fact that hype is so prevalent says a lot
about the reader of junk mail. It implies that they have a short
attention span and are unconcerned and unconvinced by details:
they are emotionally driven. However, much of it can probably
be attributed to the desensitization against the effects of junk
mail. Even the pictures they show have a lot to say about what
they imply their audience is like.
Perhaps the single most distinguishing quality of hype in junk
mail is the typesetting. It's designed to catch the eye. The words
are usually big, huge in fact, telling you who they are and what
they're selling. Anything that can be grasped at a quick glance,
that will catch the eye, and that will present the product in
an attractive light, will be displayed in big, bold letters. These
aren't designed to inform you of their product, as such information
can more easily and efficiently be presented in plain, normal-sized
fonts. Such dry and boring information, though in fact more informative,
is confined to "fine print."
The typesetting is almost always rampant with exclamation points,
since they are probably the single most effective symbol to represent
excitement, and is therefore eye-catching. Similarly, large fonts,
boldface print, and capital letters also seem to imply excitement,
so they're also used. Since every idea and name is considered
property in America, you're bound to see several trademark (tm)
symbols in the average piece of junk mail. A good example of all
of these facets of hype can be found on the GE BonusBack(tm) Loan
It's TIME To GET OUT OF DEBT!!
What's the catch? Absolutely nothing!!
You are pre-approved for GE BonusBack(tm) Loan.
It takes only a few minutes to save so much.
As this example shows, two exclamation points are better than
one!! Of course, the details are confined to the fine print on
the bottom, which tell you, for example, that you are in fact
not so easily "pre-approved" as "the credit may
not be extended if, after you respond to the offer, we determine
that you do not meet the applicable criteria required bearing
on creditworthiness." This is information that most people
don't read, and indeed probably don't even understand, but the
advertisers goal is to get you to respond to the offer, not to
inform you of your blessing of credit which they have bestowed
Hype seems necessary in junk mail because junk mail is so notoriously
ignored. In a shopping mall, for example, the shoppers are seeking
commodities, and that is their purpose for going. They want to
find something that they will enjoy consuming. The shopper and
the seller are in it together. All the seller has to do is make
the package look appealing and the shopper will be curious about
it (qtd. in Maasik 46). But in junk mail, the sender knows that
no one wants to read their sales pitch, and that, in fact, most
of their mail goes straight into the trash can without much more
than a glance. Therefore, junk mail must sell itself in that one,
Do Americans have such a short attention span that advertisers
are required to resort to such hype? That's what everything about
the junk mail seems to imply. If any of us had the patience to
read carefully through every ad, we would certainly be more informed
consumers, and we would happily dish over money for something
that we truly need. But these ads seem to be telling us a different
story, that we are unconvinced by mere information. We need to
have emotional appeal in ads we see before we'll spend money.
This implies that the "virtual consumer" of these ads
are emotional people, rather than logical people. Therefore, emotional
appeal in ads stimulate consumption. If they didn't, the advertisers
wouldn't be investing so much money in creating it.
Of course, another explanation seems logical here. Perhaps we
as consumers have become desensitized to the effects of junk mail.
We receive a pile of it everyday, most of which advertises things
that we don't need. The very fact that mail advertisements have
been dubbed the name "junk mail" implies that it is
"junk" that shouldn't be paid attention to. Most people
just immediately throw it away. This could partly explain why
advertisers need to focus so hard on catching our eye in that
brief time duration between retrieving it from the mail box to
inserting into the trash can: people simply don't pay attention
to it anymore.
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