April 19, 2005

Snail Mail Deception

As I collected my daily mail from the mailbox yesterday, I noticed a letter addressed to me. Well, not me precisely, it was addressed to Jason S. Maria, one of my many alter egos. This is nothing new. I noticed the front was covered in ink smudges, presumably from other letters in transit, enough so that I could make out the impression of a credit card contained inside. Even though it wasn’t addressed to me exactly, the prospect of throwing out an intact credit card, however vaguely attached to my identity, never feels like a good one. When I opened it I was surprised to find it was not a real credit card at all, but a fake credit card with a phone number on it. Upon closer inspection, I noticed something insipid. The impression left in the ink smudges on the front didn’t match the card inside. I held up the envelope two inches from my face, “The bastards printed the smudged impression on the envelope?!” Yes they did indeed. Thanks assholes, I can’t wait to sign up for your credit card now! Here’s a detail shot (I upped the contrast a bit to make the telltale moire pattern more visible).

Was this supposed to make me step back and say “Ho ho, you got me, that was a good one. Where do I sign”? What they were trying to do is get me to open the letter, and it worked. But wait a minute, did it really work? So I opened their letter, but there is a difference between enticing me to purchase something and instilling fear in doing business with you. Your letter worked, Bank of America, it motivated me to act. Without ever using your services I am inclined to distrust you, meaning I would probably go out of my way to do business with someone else. People aren’t big on feeling tricked, especially when it comes to their finances. It’s not entirely different than spam I suppose, although spam I get that has a similar aim is actually trying to steal my money/identity.

There are always consequences in the designs we create, the more we move towards cheap ploys to spur people into action, the further we push our audience and customers away. Offer me something tangible, something that tells me you are better than the rest. Lying to me before even saying hello only tells me you are behind the pack. And get my fucking name right.

Commentary (40):

1. cash says… apr 19, 2005 | 9:14 pm

Bravo! I got the SAME exact piece wonderful direct marketing and was amazed at the audacity of these fuckers.

Let’s pull a Fight Club ending on Wilmington.

2. Craig C. says… apr 19, 2005 | 9:32 pm

Eric Meyer got one of those a while back as well. It’s akin to those spams with a subject line of “hi” or “about last night.” All just to trick you into opening it up so they can accost your eyeballs and waste your time. Dirty marketroids.

3. patrick h. lauke says… apr 19, 2005 | 9:51 pm

maybe it’s just a misunderstanding: it was probably an hommage to the weathered / distressed look of your site ;)

4. Mike D. says… apr 19, 2005 | 11:00 pm

Classic… and yet another reason I’m glad I dropped B of A way back in the mid ‘90s.

I would expect this sort of thing more from a shady third-worldish credit card company than B of A, but I guess nothing’s below them.

You mention that the ploy had the opposite effect on you than was intended, but at the same time, how many people have the eagle-eye of Meatspace Stan? My bet is that only a few people out of a hundred are keen enough to pick up on the scam, so maybe the other 97 or so are just the sort of suckers this bank is looking to attract.

5. Dan Mall says… apr 19, 2005 | 11:02 pm

I agree with Patrick. They’re trying to appeal to Maria J. Santa’s design sense. See how convincing it was? I’d hire them to design my marketing any day.

6. Matt Johnson says… apr 19, 2005 | 11:12 pm

Wow..I wonder if I have one of those…


Well I am going to be looking for another bank soon anyway, but I can see it won’t be B of A.

Good find Jason!

7. Mike says… apr 19, 2005 | 11:50 pm

Damn! I was hoping I’d get one of those but then I realized I never will.

Why oh why do I live in Canada?! We don’t have clever marketers like this “B of A” you speak of. Ours just inundate us with plain letters in clean envelopes.


8. Elliott Bäck says… apr 20, 2005 | 12:10 am

Don’t you think it’s pretty cool they try and trick you like that? You should feel reassured at the quality of their marketing department!

9. Theodore K says… apr 20, 2005 | 3:40 am

“Higher Standards” my ass.

10. bearskinrug says… apr 20, 2005 | 6:52 am

I don’t understand this trend at all. Any of the “trick” direct mail I receive only makes me lose respect and trust in the sender - and it’s ALL financial institutions!

My first industry job was at a branding agency; they did a lot of direct mail for Bank of America. We even put together their Standards Manual! Back then they were pretty strict — I mean “The envelope can only have a RED bar!” strict. I wonder what’s caused these kinds of techniques to become legitimate?

11. Kristian says… apr 20, 2005 | 8:06 am

I keep thinking that one of these day’s I’m going to keep all the credit card offers I get in the mail for a year and add up my what my debt load would be if I fell for it.

Mike D has a point. They know that a profitable number of people aren’t paying attention enough and will sign up on the spot. It’s the same reason we get SPAM. It’s still a finacially viable way to get customers, no matter if it honks off a chunk of the population. Never overestimate the intelligence of a large sector of the people.

12. Jason Santa Maria says… apr 20, 2005 | 8:10 am

It seems like they are just leaping from one scheme to the next; cashing in on the short-term and really screwing themselves in the long-term. It just sucks when companies don’t care about their customers.

Isn’t there a point where a majority of potential customers are turned off by them? Will their marketing department wake up one day and think “Why the hell can’t we get any new customers?”

13. niff says… apr 20, 2005 | 8:53 am

Holy cow! I have never seen anything so deceptive from snail spammers before. You made an excellent point stan. I actually am a Bank of America customer, and even though I’ve never had any problems with them, this act a lone makes me mistrust them and wanna start looking for a new bank.

14. Michael B. says… apr 20, 2005 | 9:18 am

I have actually gone through the procedure to block my credit report from being probed for credit solicitations, but it doesn’t seem to do any good. I still get offers from time to time, which just goes to show that the industry is not at all interested in consumers’ best intersts (or in honoring their requests, for that matter.)

In my case, American Express is the biggest offender. I called them twice last year to have my name removed from their mailing lists, but it had no effect. The “customer service rep” in India must not have processed my request properly. (In other words, he probably through it in the trash.)

The lesson to learn is that credit card companies are only working for themsevles. They have zero interest in the public well-being. With recent security lapses, they’ve even proven that they aren’t interested in protecting the sensitive data they collect from criminal hands.

Getting back to the issue of direct mail design, I also get letters that mimic the look of FedEx packaging and legitimate student loan organizations in an attempt to make me think the letters are very import. Some I refuse and mark “Return to Sender.” Most I just shred. I have no interest in working with a company who’s first attempt to impress me involves deception.

15. Ian says… apr 20, 2005 | 10:10 am

A damn shame. Granted, I only have a checking and a savings with them but Bank of America has the best ATMs and the best online banking I have ever used, I have automated fund transfers and my checking is absolutely free. Of course, they are a financial institution built on the backs of hardworking individuals like myself. Hell, I remember when they changed their name from Nation’s Bank, I was in their offices one day and there was a giant glass wall with lettering that read Banc of America. I always thought that C was a bit ostentatious. I truly hope that your having said something changes their marketing attitude and I commend you for your resolve to not do business with them for the above-mentioned reasons.

16. John Nick says… apr 20, 2005 | 10:13 am

Flame me, whatever, but I think the campaign is brilliant.

Totally in keeping with the “Wicked Worn” trend.

No, I have absolutely nothing to do with any mass-marketing campaign. No connection with this or any other bank.

Nor am I any kind of shill.

This is insanely more creative than the “YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER” b.s. of yore, IMO.

Are folks mad because “wicked worn” has hit the junkmail circuit?

It’s a variety of ultimate success, no?

Just another opinion. I realize it’s not in keeping with others here. Hope you’ll respect my posting it. (Am sure JSM will.)

BTW, after “wicked worn,” what comes next? Post-WW? It has sort of been a response to the OSX Liquid revolution.

Also BTW, some fabulous WW in the opening credits of the crazy Japanese film Battle Royale.

17. Jason Santa Maria says… apr 20, 2005 | 10:29 am

Hang on a sec John Nick, WW aside, this campaign is far from brilliant. More creative? Yeah sure, they used the credit card impression in a creative way. But, creativity has more than one purpose, as does design. They got me to open their envelope, but their job doesn’t stop there. They have to get me to buy something or take part in their services. A simple “foot in the door” doesn’t work in this equation. What’s important to remember here is that ever piece of communication you use to push your company into the general populous reflects back on what your company is like. I would be far more likely to take a company seriously if they came at me with something useful, or something compelling enough to change the way I do things. Cold hard facts, can they save me money? Can they offer me better service? I wasn’t motivated to open that envelope based on finding out more information about an offer, I was motivated to open it out of fear of someone taking money from me. Make sense?

Wicked Worn has been around long before it was given a name, and long before the web ;D

18. Tim from philly says… apr 20, 2005 | 11:20 am

Geez. This reminds me of a very bad experience I just had with BofA — except with more frustrating consequences that will probably go on my credit report.

I had recently transferred a higher interest card to a lower rate balance transfer account. Except for some reason the whole amount didn’t transfer over, so I had about $128 left on the old card, but I didn’t know this (don’t assume, right…lesson learned). Doing what I usually do with the piles of credit card offers I get everyday, I diligently shredded every last one of them. Apparently I also shredded the numerous late notices I was getting from F$ckers of America for my $128. They just looked like a clear ploy to get me to open the envelope, especially since I no longer had a BofA account. I ignored them, as well as the phone calls that sounded too much like telemarketers. My wife was like: “couldn’t you tell?” (with a tone that clearly implied “you’re a designer, you moron! don’t you know the legit from the directmail crap?”)

Yeah, you got me Bank of America! Nice one.

19. Rob Weychert says… apr 20, 2005 | 11:39 am

Shit yeah, Wicked Wooorrrrnnnn!! Wicked!

20. niff says… apr 20, 2005 | 12:19 pm

I’m sorry Tim from Philly, but when banks start calling you..especially when you have done business with them in the past…there is something wrong. They only call when you owe them money…trust me I KNOW!

21. Tony says… apr 20, 2005 | 12:22 pm

I changed to BofA fairly recently. Regardless of their mass mailings, they still have the best online banking I’ve used, they have the most ATMs in my area, and they have free checking. At any rate, I don’t see how this example is any worse than the other 1000 mass mailings I get a week:

“Check Enclosed”
“Official Correspondence”
“Immediate Action Required”
“You’ve Won!”


They are all just trying to find what button to push to get people to open the envelope, where they apparently believe their offer will speak for itself.

Honestly, this isn’t anywhere near as bad as what my credit card company (“Direct Merchants Bank”) does to it’s own customers — constantly sending out “cash advanced” checks which only mention in the fine print that the interest rate on cash advances is way higher than credit purchases.

22. RJ Hampden says… apr 20, 2005 | 12:44 pm

Sounds like you all need to close your accounts and move to Sealand.

23. Jeff Hartman says… apr 20, 2005 | 2:01 pm

They won, brilliant or not. You opened it and remembered who it was from. And even better, you are talking about it in public. Even though you didn’t appreciate the sneaky way it was delivered/packaged, you and thousands others were exposed to their product. It’s not like this “negative” talk is going to cause BofA to lose a crapload of customers. They may actually even get more.

I think in this case it is such a small minority of people who will complain.…and the complaints don’t add up to anything. People have become immune to junk postal mail. I would guess that for every customer to cancel their account because of “being deceived” by their advertising, they have many, many times more who
signed up because of what they were offering - or more so because the recipient had a need.

Banks know exactly what they’re doing. They know that people live off of credit (and the vast majority) carry a balance and pay interest. That letter you got probably hit quite a few people who really “needed” yet another credit card.

Just like spammers send junk email, they do it because it works. Who’s at fault? The one sending or the one responding? I hate spam and junk mail, but I think it’s the latter.

24. Tim from philly says… apr 20, 2005 | 3:40 pm

niff said:

They only call when you owe them money

Not exactly true, I don’t owe telemarketers any money, and they call. I’m on the don’t-call list, they still call. I’m not saying I wasn’t stupid in this case, and I basically have no real recourse, but it’s not as cut-and-dried as “if banks call you, there’s something wrong and you own them money”.

And I agree with whoever said the no label envelope is perhaps the most effective. Man, I always open those things now!

25. John Nick says… apr 20, 2005 | 4:14 pm

Point taken, JSM — the campaign is not brilliant. The foot in the door is (IMO) brilliant.

Your note about “motivation out of fear” is quite accurate. Very WMD, no?

Sadly the thing you describe — “something useful, or something compelling enough to change the way I do things” — is rare.

And they seldom (BaseCamp, iPod, &c.) need junkmail campaigns to proliferate.

26. Theodore K says… apr 21, 2005 | 4:23 am

On the topic of telephone SPAM, it reminds me of a rememberable Seinfeld episode:

“Hi. Would you be interested in switching over to TMI Long Distance service?” “Oh, gee, I can’t talk right now. Why don’t you give me your home number and I’ll call you later.” “Uh, sorry, we’re not allowed to do that.” “Oh, I guess you don’t want people calling you at home.” “No.” “Well, now you know how I feel.” [hangs up] — Telemarketer and Jerry, in “The Pitch”
27. Peter Santa Maria says… apr 21, 2005 | 1:08 pm

You would think with the Michael Jackson trial taking place in SANTA MARIA, CA, the dumbass masses in the telemarketing sector would get our last name right by now…but NOPE!

Also, those free iPod and PSP ads online are truly BRILLIANT marketing campaigns

28. dressel says… apr 21, 2005 | 3:15 pm

on a side note… after ripping up yet another credit card offer last night i wonder/ed if there is some number or something that i could call to tell all credit card companies to stop sending me offers. i only have/use one credit card on top of my debit card and don’t plan on getting any more. if i signed up for every offer i get in the mail, i would have atleast 78 cards by now. please make it stop.

sorry for making this rant, but i saw an opportunity.

29. sergio says… apr 21, 2005 | 7:52 pm

Peter Santa Maria? Is that your brother? You have a brother?

Wow. I always figured you had been grown in a vat at a secret government facility or something, Jason.

30. Jeremy Boggs says… apr 22, 2005 | 10:49 am

I haven’t received a letter like Jason did, but I have been receiving letters that are plain white that use a handwriting or script font on them. On first glance it looks like someone’s written me a letter, and I wonder “who in Chicago knows me?” So, curiosity gets the best of me and I open it up, and there’s a damn credit card offer.

31. Jenni says… apr 22, 2005 | 12:49 pm

I knew those dirty bastards at B of A couldn’t be trusted!

What I want to know is does this kind of deception marketing work? I can’t imagine it working, but various companies have been doing it so long, you’d think they would stop!

My favorite is the letter that looks like it contains a fat check for $xxxx, but when you open the letter it’s something stupid like a coupon.

32. Josh says… apr 23, 2005 | 11:47 am

Hmm… interesting. I’m having a difficult time slamming B of A for this one. First off, only a graphic designer or marketing-minded person will ever make the connection that the outer printing and the inner card don’t match. Second, some people are compelled to open a piece like this not out of fear of identity theft, but out of a desire to possibly hold in their hands another “dig-me-deeper-into-a-credit-hole” card that they can go out and use right away! Naturally, all of this sort of direct mail is engineered to get you to open it and the use of deceptive “important” notices and the like is very commonplace. I’m surprise so many of ya’ll are getting so bent out of shape over this. I think I would have laughed and tossed it in the trash remarking to myself “well, they got me on that one”.

33. OweBoat says… apr 25, 2005 | 5:58 pm

There must be a creative rebuttal to this process, and we at Oweboat intend to work tirelessly to figure it out. For instance, take the fake card one company sends you and put it in the return envelope of another company. You aren’t interested in their offer, but perhaps the mail opener on the other end is, you wouldn’t want them to miss out and only see offers from their own company!

34. Jason Costello says… apr 26, 2005 | 3:41 pm

wow. this is a new one. faking ink blemishes and so on. leave it up to banks and huge corporations to lead us all to mistrust the dirt on out envelopes. way too much time is spent on decieving people into using inferior services and products, time that could be fixing them. it creates a conflict for designers too. say for instance, you were asked to do this. would you? we all need a an income but could you willingly contribute to the meaningless crap media stimulation that is being injected into our lives? i suppose to some it doesnt matter and it was a brilliant marketing idea. btw, i enjoy your site very much.

35. Josh says… apr 27, 2005 | 2:08 pm

That is hilarious. To me, it is both clever and ridiculous at the same time.

I think the concept is good, but definitely not successful for its purpose, as Jason pointed out.

Just shows how shameless some marketing can really be.

36. char says… apr 29, 2005 | 1:40 pm

I freaking hate that kind of spam is it not enough that they have our emails and sell us everything under the sun but Bank of America sucks anyway all of their marketing reps will probally get promoted for such a brilliant act like this

37. Rob says… apr 30, 2005 | 1:45 am

I have a simple rule, they make me open the junk - I send back the pre-paide envelope inside. I have to side on the great idea side for this one - shitty as it is.

38. Erwin Heiser says… may 29, 2005 | 7:00 pm
“If anyone here is in marketing do us all a favour and kill yourselves. You are Satans little helpers”
Bill Hicks
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40. jm says… apr 4, 2006 | 12:32 am

Like all other junk mail, this was sent as Standard mail without any sort of Ancillary Service Endorsement. Take a look at the postage area. Normally important mail like credit cards and bills will be sent out First Class or Presort First Class. Standard mail is “junk mail class”. Normally Standard mail is not returned to sender, unless the sender agrees to pay the return postage bu using an Ancillary Service Endorsement.

What I do is I just take a good look at the envelope. If it is Standard mail, but no “Ancillary Service Endorsements” appear on it, or it isn’t particually heavy, then it is junk mail.

Ancillary Service Endorsements are as follows: Return Service Requested, Forwarding Service Requested, Address Service Requested, and Change Service Requested. Which are nice too because if you think it’s still junk and you can return it to sender, and it will be actually returned to sender.