Deceptive direct mail or clever selling tactic?

When you’re creating direct mail or any form of advertising, it’s important to be an aggressive advocate for the product or service you’re selling.

But you always run the risk of crossing the line between advocacy and deception. The problem is knowing exactly where that line is. Everyone has a different standard for ethical behavior.

Here’s a letter I received recently. (I’ve blurred all identifying information.) It appears to be perfectly legal and fairly typical for a direct mail solicitation today. In fact, I receive many letters like this from a variety of businesses.

economic stimulus letter

The letter arrived in a plain envelope. Neither the envelope nor the letter displays a company logo.

The header is “ECONOMIC STIMULUS ACT 2008,” referring to the federal program that is mailing checks to U.S. residents. There is also a “case number.”

The main body copy reads as follows:


Our records indicate that you have not responded to our previous attempts to notify you of your eligibility. Contact us toll free at 1-800-XXX-XXXX Ext. 16 before the final date of August 10, 2008.

The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 has allowed the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to temporarily adjust lending policies to soften the crisis for adjustable rate mortgage holders and to provide economic stimulus.


You have been selected by our FHA lending division and are now eligible to apply for lower fixed rates, mortgage payment reduction, debt consolidation and/or receive cash out. Distribution of funds will be made available to you via secure wire or priority overnight delivery within 72 hours of funding.

For details of benefits and availability of funds, call the number below and provide your case number.

The phone number and case number are then highlighted in large, bold letters. This is followed by the address for the FHA section of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Web site. The Web address does in fact lead to the FHA site.

There’s a logo for Equal Opportunity Housing at the bottom along with a footer which reveals the name and address of a mortgage company and discloses that this company is not affiliated with the federal government, along with some other legal copy.

In short, this is a letter from a financial business seeking to generate phone calls and sell home loans. But it looks like an official letter from the government.

The question is does this letter cross the line? Is it simply an example of aggressive selling or is it deceptive advertising? Tell me what you think and why.

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9 Responses to “Deceptive direct mail or clever selling tactic?”

  1. Sean Star/neoCaptiva marketing on July 23rd, 2008 10:26 pm

    I get a lot of clients in the mortgage and car refinance industry, and with all the competition, it seems everyone is trending towards this new form of “official government” marketing. We don’t always agree with this, but clients always question, if this is deceptive, then why are the response rates so high? Isn’t that what they are in business for? Good copywriting and design can help any campaign, but you can’t expect the high return you get from the official government look. This is merely replicating a look that is guaranteed to get readability. If the prospect feels deceived, they wouldn’t convert properly.

  2. Dean Rieck on July 23rd, 2008 10:34 pm

    That’s a good argument for this style of marketing. Many people simply don’t see it as wrong because if you end up with satisfied clients, it can’t be unethical, can it?

    A similar approach is the pure “advocate” point of view. “I’ll do anything to make money for my clients, if it’s illegal or wrong, it’s the lawyers’ job to stop me.” Lawyers themselves use the advocate approach.

    Excellent comment. Thanks.

  3. Suzanne Obermire on July 25th, 2008 11:52 am

    I find this completely deceptive. Sadly, it gives direct marketers a bad name (and we certainly don’t need a worse reputation, do we?).

    Sometimes, even if something ‘works’, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

  4. Dean Rieck on July 25th, 2008 12:07 pm

    Those who follow the DMA ethical guidelines would probably agree with you.

    It fails on several points, including honesty and clarity of offer, disclosure of sponsor and intent, and most notably solicitation in the guise of an invoice or governmental notification.

    And with just two comments on this mailing, you can see the problem. Some will see it as okay and others will not. Despite DMA guidelines, there is no consensus for what is right even among honest and well-meaning people.

  5. Bob Hill on August 4th, 2008 7:10 pm

    I get a lot of direct mail for mortgages.I have seen much worse in terms of deceptive or misleading advertising. A few small changes and I think it would be still very effective and not at or near the line of deception. The company’s name and address needs to be in the main message body. Leaving company identification to fine print is shady at best. The use of the Government website address should be removed or explained. Maybe say something like “For more information on the new FHA loan programs, please visit the Government Website:
    Using the word case # is probably not the best choice either. That should be changed to reference # or something along those lines. Just my 2 cents.. Other than that, it’s a pretty good attention grabbing mail piece. It’s very brief and to the point.

  6. Roy on August 6th, 2008 8:04 pm

    Hey Dean,
    Great article! Thanks for sharing it with us. I am a firm believer in doing whatever it takes to get a response, but gross misrepresentation never works. I do like to “push the envelope” and get a reaction out of people, but I don’t like using outright deceiving to accomplish it. People pick up on deception before too long. You will lose more business than you gain. It works like gravity. Whatever is true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report will always work in your favor. That’s a rock-solid guarantee. Keep up the great work!

  7. jiimiona on August 9th, 2008 8:39 am

    I’m sold :) ) +1

  8. Sean Star/neoCaptiva marketing on August 9th, 2008 1:01 pm

    A lot of people consider this type of marketing as Guerilla Marketing, or Buzz Marketing. If you’re advertising to youth, or entertainment, than you can get away with this edgy type of marketing. The Maxim magazine/youth culture is more forgiving and responsive to this type of marketing.

  9. Robert McKiernan on September 4th, 2010 2:00 am

    This kind of marketing is utterly sleazy. It suggests your product is so undesirable you have to trick your audience into thinking the letter is from the government. Its mainly out to take advantage of people too dumb or too old (poor eyesight) to read the fine print. These kinds of practices are the reason people hate marketing professional. Its that attitude of doign what ever it takes. It makes me sick to hear others defending these practices. Shame on you.

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