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You May Already Be a Winner!

One Family's Ride on the Publishers Clearing House Roller Coaster

September 28, 1997|Howard Rosenberg

It's the season again. Now that the pro football wars have resume, so have the sweepstakes wars. And a year ago, my wife, Carol, and I were on the front lines.

Most of us work hard much of our lives just trying to earn a living. So it's human nature to look longingly at those who get something for nothing and wish the same for yourself. It needn't be much. A mere few million would smooth some wrinkles.

Which explains what Carol and I were doing in front of a TV set last Jan. 26.

The Green Bay Packers had just defeated the New England Patriots in another humdrum Super Bowl. But who cared? We had something much more important on our minds than football as we nervously watched the postgame show on Fox, hoping at any moment to simultaneously hear our doorbell ring and see David Sayer and the Prize Patrol pop on the screen live with a fat check and make the glorious symphonic announcement we'd been anticipating for months:

"Carol Rosenberg, you are the new Publishers Clearing House $10-million winner."

We were on edge awaiting the announcement. "I thought I heard a car outside," Carol said. She popped up and rushed to a window. I joined her. The cats came, too.

Me: "See a guy with gray hair or a camera crew?"

Her: "Can't see anything."

Me: "When are they gonna fix that street light?"

Her: "Sure the doorbell is working?

Me: "They wouldn't knock anyway?"

Her: "Isn't that a van?"

Me: " Look. The TV. M'God, it's the Prize Patrol."

How did we--two college-educated, fairly intelligent, reasonably sophisticated persons--reach this pitiful state, standing fingers crossed in front of a TV, hoping for a miracle that would land us on easy street with other Publishers Clearing House millionaires?

Well, the dream is powerful. Even knowing the ridiculous odds, your optimistic inner voice urges you on with the reminder that someone has to win. So you ask: "Why not us?" The answer is another question: "Why not?"

Hence, the vicarious fun of the old TV series about a benevolent geezer with kadzillions who gave a million away each week to average stiffs who didn't expect it. The psychology of receiving instant riches from a benefactor, if not the altruistic spirit of "The Millionaire," lives on, not only in the crush of lotteries throughout the nation but also in the swarm of major sweepstakes that stuff U.S. mailboxes with garish offers of prizes and payoffs soaring all the way to $11 million. The two behemoths of this bunch are Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers (starring Dick Clark and Ed McMahon).

Although giveaways are the chassis of these direct-mail extravaganzas, their horsepower comes from offers of magazine subscriptions and myriad "money-saving" coupons for products that tumble out of the same envelopes. Profits from the sale of these items go to the sweepstakes companies themselves. That includes a reported 78% to 82% of a magazine's subscription price, in exchange for which a magazine sees its subscriber base dramatically increased, the volume of which determines its advertising rates.

The sweepstakes say you don't have to buy anything to win and emphatically vow that in their mailings. Yet psychology and human nature intercede here, for the offers are purposely worded in ways that, disclaimers notwithstanding, create an impression that making a purchase might give you an edge on the multitudes of other, uh, hopefuls. So you reason, why take a chance and not buy?

And those multitudes, by the way, are vast. Tens of millions of sweepstakes entries are mailed to consumers, and many more are mailed endlessly. So wide are these mailings that Reader's Digest, which runs one of the larger giveaways, estimates that participants have only a 1-in-199.5 million chance of being the lucky needle in the haystack. You have as much chance of bumping into Hillary Clinton at the supermarket.

I had always treated these sweepstakes mailings as junk, automatically throwing them into the trash, unopened. Unfortunately, as fast as I would toss these suckers, Carol would fish them out.

We haggled about this for a long time. But then I also learned from Skeptic, the magazine of the Skeptics Society, that "if you are skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism."

I read no farther. That was enough for me. Time to get rich.

What follows is a journal of that attempt, our personal odyssey a year ago in search of the Holy Grail of wealth.

Sept. 13: Our hearts thump wildly when the come-on arrives for Carol in a white envelope from Publishers Clearing House, promising exclusivity: "Only one out of five has been approved for $10-million-winner processing. Prize acceptance affidavit enclosed. Zip open here to check your status."

It also resonates urgency ("Last chance to enter . . . ") and has a personal touch from contest manager Dorothy Addeo.

"Dear Carol Rosenberg:

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