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Junk Mail and the Art of Hype SPM:

Junk Mail and the Art of Hype

Junk Mail and the Art of Hype

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. 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.

In fact, we're exposed to advertising at a constant rate. If you turn on the television, read the newspaper, flip through a magazine, listen to the radio, answer the telephone, surf the web, read email, go shopping, drive on the freeway, watch a movie, or basically do anything other than sleep, you're bound to be subject to a constant stream of advertising. Even if you don't see outright ads trying to sell something, you may see brand names with logos which play on the most effective advertising trick of all: name recognition. We get advertising jingles stuck in our heads and we recall the "cute" ads with story lines and share them with our friends. Our lives are absolutely cluttered with advertising. By the time we open our mailbox, unless we see something particularly eye-catching, we're determined to rid ourselves of it as quickly as possible.

Some advertising is so obvious about its techniques that even the common consumer will notice it. Such ads may be so degrading that one may ask, "who do they think I am, anyway?" Moreover, from a semiological perspective, you can find hundreds of hidden meanings behind the techniques used beyond just the typesetting. As the Chinese proverb says, "a picture is worth a thousand words." If you look carefully at the pictures these ads boast, you will find a plethora of interesting assumptions that the advertisers must have had about their audience.

A shining example of this can be found in a recent newsletter distributed by The Gas Company. This sort of junk mail is the most interesting of all because it's cloaked: they disguise the advertising as a "newsletter" hiding inside of your gas bill waiting to "inform" you. Little do you know that it's only a fancy version of junk mail. When you open it, you find that half of the pages are covered with pictures. The pictures aren't there to inform you; they're there to evoke an emotional response, as they depict a happy American family enjoying their summer together. All of the people are attractive, very white and obviously upper-middle class, but from the way the characters are posing, it seems that they're not happy because they have money; they're happy because they have each other. The desire for love and family is a very strong one and seeing pictures that represent this desire becoming a reality can evoke a strong emotional response indeed.

It is interesting to note that the assumption they make is that their audience is white and upper-middle class, or at least want to be. However, if this isn't the case, they have another ad on the flip side which depicts a Hispanic mother and her child together very happily. Of course, this ad is written in Spanish. It certainly was nice of The Gas Company to be politically correct yet still segregate their audience based on race. They may justify this by claiming that they're only attempting to serve the language needs of their Spanish-speaking audience, but the implications that American activities exclusively involve white people are still clear.

More so than the language used, the pictures are what give such impressions. One picture depicts a couple smiling at each other in a playful way as they barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers, the two most American foods there are. The woman looks as if she's reacting to something not in the picture, but the imagination can fill in the gaps and assume that she's watching her children, especially since the rest of the pictures do show couples with their children. In the same ad, a family is swimming together in a pool, and they seem very close. Indeed, they're physically close to each other, and they have smiles from ear to ear. Another picture shows a child by herself, laying in a raft, catching the rays, sporting her heart-shaped sunglasses, and again, smiling from ear to ear. Most Americans can only dream of being so happy, and, the season being so near to summer, people may invoke hopes that they might be capable of being so happy this summer; that's what the ad claims to tell you how to achieve.

They catch your eye with the pictures and the large, friendly typesetting. This was only a ploy to get your attention. Once they have you reading it, then they can work their sales pitch. The very first paragraph reads:

Now you can have fun in the sun and save money! It's easy with The Gas Company's new SummerSaver Program that helps you enjoy your gas appliances even more. That means more barbecues and pool parties for your family and friends.

Now they've told you straight out that they're going to help you have the kind of fun that they've depicted in the pictures, and that you're going to save money doing it. What more could a gas customer want? The ad goes on to spout impressive-looking percentages and dollar amounts that you will save, but they only go into enough detail to make it sound like you'll be saving money. They insure you at the end that "regardless of which option you choose, SummerSaver is a smart way to enjoy your gas equipment more often!"

However, if you look at their numbers with more skepticism, you'll find the catch: the savings only happen for the amount of gas you use over last years amount, so you're guaranteeing that you will actually be spending more money. The implication is that you want to use more gas this summer anyway because you want to have more fun with your family than you did last summer. This is their trick to stimulate consumption of more gas: first they inspire you with pictures depicting happy families enjoying their gas usage. This constructs an identity of the audience that they suggest will be using more gas this summer. Then they tell you that you can have that kind of fun, be that kind of family, and save money at the same time. Then, acting under the assumption that they've inspired you, they go on to tell you that all you need to do to save money is use more gas, which is absurd if you think about it, but it makes sense because you're not thinking about the details but instead thinking about the summer and your family. That was the point of the pictures and the hype. They were even nice enough to provide you with ideas for how to enjoy your gas usage!

From all of the things you can pick out from a piece of junk mail, all the pictures, all the underlying assumptions that went into crafting the ad, one thing you usually won't find is valuable, detailed information. Although they present it in such a way as to seem informative, the ads are based more on hype than on information. Hype is the basis for all emotionally-driven advertising, and it can be found in the slew of junk mail you receive at your home each day.

Works Cited

Hine, Thomas. "What's in a Package." Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers.
        2nd ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford, 1997.

Bill Mason's Home
Page   Bill Mason, bmason at
  Comments, suggestions, corrections, and criticisms are welcome.

I used the physical word "at" rather than the @ symbol so as to avoid junk email. If you're interested in emailing me, you must replace the word "at" with the actual @ symbol.

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