Junk Mail and the Art of Hype

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 Program:
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 onto you.

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, vital glance.

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.