The $10 Million Prize Patrol: Myths And Truths Yes, It May Be You (against All Odds) Who Answers The Doorbell. No, You Won't See Ed Mcmahon.

Posted: January 26, 1997

About 9:30 tonight, somewhere in the United States or Canada, a dark-colored van will park discreetly outside a house.

Minutes later, if all goes as planned, several neatly dressed people will get out, ring the doorbell, and change somebody's life forever.

YES, IT MAY BE YOU! Somebody may interrupt your peace and quiet during the Super Bowl postgame show to announce YOU'VE JUST WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS!!

Then again, probably not.

Your chance of winning is tiny, perhaps 1 in 100 million - far worse, say, than winning a typical state lottery (1 in 17 million), getting a royal flush in five-card-stud poker (1 in 649,739), or dying this year in a plane crash (about 1 in 300,000).

Still, somebody has to win, right? And if the blue-blazered members of the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol are going to end up somewhere, why not at your house? All it costs is a 32-cent stamp.

Congratulations. If you followed that logic, you've just confirmed the genius of the folks in Port Washington, N.Y.

The Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes is an American institution, and also a marvel of modern marketing.

It and its near-lookalike rival, the American Family Publishers sweepstakes, are champions of direct mail: praised for the way their offers draw customers in, capture their attention, and lure them to buy. At the same time, they are derided for those same things by critics who call their methods deceptive.

Whatever else these promotional sweepstakes are, they are poorly understood both by those who love them and those who loathe them.

So as you breathlessly await that first commercial break during tonight's postgame show, and the identity of the NEXT TEN MILLION DOLLAR WINNER, here is a look at some of the myths and realities of the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

Myth No. 1: If you win, Ed McMahon will come to your door. Let's get this one out of the way quickly. Johnny Carson's former sidekick works for American Family Publishers. The sweepstakes are so often confused with each other that even scam artists supposedly get mixed up. If anyone links its sweepstakes with Ed's name, PCH warns, it's a dead giveaway that something underhanded is afoot.

Other warning signs of fraudulent copycats: being asked to pay a charge to enter; being told to call a 900 number; being charged a ``prize delivery fee.''

By the way, the closest thing PCH has to Ed is David C. Sayer, chief officer of the famed Prize Patrol, who took a few minutes away from his harried last-minute preparations Thursday to discuss the sweepstakes.

So how do you get a job like that?

``Invent it,'' Sayer said.

Sayer is executive director of advertising and public relations. He had been at PCH since the early 1980s, and was looking ``to do something unusual in our advertising'' when the Prize Patrol concept came to him.

It was straight out of The Millionaire, a TV series he fondly recalled in which ordinary people's lives were changed by a courier who came to the door with a check for $1 million.

Then Sayer made himself the chief courier. ``It seemed like a pretty good job,'' he said.

Sayer declined to discuss either his age or how much he earns, not to mention where he was heading, how he was getting there, or who the winner was.

``I just found out this morning, and that stays top secret,'' Sayer said.

Myth 2: You have to buy to play. Efforts to debunk this one weren't helped by accounts of the 1992 discovery, by sanitation workers in the New York City borough of Queens, that more than 2,000 unopened entries had been thrown out.

Yes, it happened, Sayer said. But it was an isolated incident, a mistake misconstrued as intentional, just a blip on otherwise crystal-clear radar.

First of all, he said, they weren't tossed in a dump. And they were not all from people who didn't order magazines, he said, though most were. As a result of the mistake, he said, PCH stopped using outside contractors for handling prize entries.

Still, there's no getting around that the sweepstakes mailings are designed to wheedle, cajole and coax you. Even after an agreement that PCH signed in 1994 with 14 state attorneys general, in part promising to make some of the wording in its mailings easier to understand, critics still complain.

``When you take a clear look at what they do, you have to come to the conclusion that their creative platforms are built on fooling people,'' says James R. Rosenfield, a Los Angeles marketing consultant who writes a monthly column for Direct Marketing magazine in which he rates direct-mail creations.

Rosenfield gives both of the major magazine sweepstakes top marks for promotional finesse. The only category where they get low marks? Honesty, integrity and believability, on which he ranks them as ``dreadful.''

The key, Rosenfield said during an interview, is that ``people see the big type long before they see the small type.'' And he said the big type was still designed to make people think they've won, or at least have a good chance.

How else, he asked, do you characterize items like the one in a recent mailing titled ``LOCATION APPROVAL FOR A LIVE TV ANNOUNCEMENT AT . . . '' followed immediately by the recipient's very own address in equally large capital letters?

Or the personalized note from Sayer saying, ``If you plan on being elsewhere, please call me''?

Sayer responded: ``We conduct a very fair, honest contest, and we believe that our mailing pieces are totally accurate. We believe that our presentations are very fair.''

Sayer says such negativity is a key to why PCH gets less response in the ``more skeptical and cynical'' Northeast.

``And that's probably why we have fewer winners in the Northeast,'' he added. ``Without fail, our winners are positive-thinking people.''

Sayer said that if some people believe they must buy magazines to have a shot at PCH's various prizes, or to have a better chance, they are not reading the mailings.

Indeed, Publishers Clearing House says that a majority of its prizewinners have not ordered magazines. Likewise, though Sayer said PCH won't disclose response rates for competitive reasons, ``I would say less than half of the respondents subscribed or ordered.''

Myth No. 3: The magazine deals are hyped, too. This may come as the biggest surprise to those ``skeptical and cynical'' Northeasterners: PCH and the American Family Publishers, which is half-owned by Time-Warner Inc., offer great bargains when it comes to magazine subscriptions.

And here's something they don't advertise, in big type or small: Those great deals are usable for renewing a current subscription.

This is where it helps to keep your eye on the ball. These companies don't exist to give away money, even if PCH says it has given away more than $100 million in prizes since its sweepstakes began 29 years ago.

Their niche is selling magazine subscriptions for publishers eager to build circulation, and their method is to promise the best deals anywhere.

Michael Pashby, senior vice president of consumer marketing for the Magazine Publishers of America, said that the sweepstakes companies keep 70 to 85 cents for every dollar they collect, and that most publishers don't even recoup their costs. What they get, instead, are lots of new subscribers.

``A mass-circulation publication gets up to 30 percent of its new subscribers from Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers,'' he said. ``They are the broadest-reach circulation tool that any publisher can use.''

The magazines then try to keep the subscribers aboard with higher-priced renewals. ``That's where the publisher makes its money,'' Pashby said.

And that's doubtless why renewals are carefully not mentioned in the sweepstakes mailings, and why Sayer says: ``We don't actively solicit them.''

But he and Pashby said publishers would accept the low-cost offers for renewals.

``Absolutely, they will,'' Pashby said.

Myth No. 4: Nobody really wins. OK, maybe that did happen in the past, but it shouldn't anymore. One provision of the 1994 agreement is that Publishers Clearing House now promises to make sure somebody wins the top prize.

Why didn't somebody always win?

``It depended on the rules for that particular giveaway,'' Sayer said. In some cases, if the preselected winning number wasn't returned, no one won the prize in question. Now, if no one wins that way, a random ``second chance'' drawing is conducted among all qualified entries. One PCH news release identifies seven $10 million winners in the last 10 years, including one each since 1993, along with 15 people who won $1 million.

But the odds against winning are still huge, and still closely guarded.

``We don't release that, and we're not required to,'' Sayer said. The most he'll say is that ``tens of millions of people'' enter.

Nor does PCH say how many entries it sends out.

Is an estimate of 150 million mailings a year reasonable? ``Yeah, probably,'' Sayer said.

In addition, PCH now accepts entries through a World Wide Web site, and from people who don't receive mailings but ask to participate.

One estimate a few years back put the odds of winning the $10 million prize at 1 in 200 million. Just for comparison, you are seven times more likely than that to die this year as a result of poisoning by ``venomous snakes, lizards and spiders,'' according to the National Safety Council.

One reason for the huge odds is that the sweepstakes companies don't just let you enter once. People who respond frequently may get dozens of mailings a year. And the sweepstakes are held open for long periods.

Tonight's prize - technically ``Giveaway Number 270'' - began in June 1995, according to a registration filed with the New York Department of State.

The flip side of this is that some people enter numerous times, and raise their own odds.

Take Alfred Slivnik, for example. He's been a PCH magazine customer since 1977, and always sends in at least a few entries.

Three years ago, it paid off. Big time.

Slivnik, now 66, was home in St. Cloud, Minn., that Saturday morning - a retired dairy farmer, he was working as a janitor at a printing shop. His wife, Diane, answered the door.

``She kind of started to cry a little bit, she was so excited,'' Slivnik recalled last week. ``I didn't say much for a while. I was just so shocked at first. I really couldn't believe it. It was really something.''

But if Slivnik sounds as laconic and unassuming as a character on Prairie Home Companion, he leaves no doubt that the prize - he nets about $130,000 a year after taxes, he said - has changed his life.

He's putting the first of three granddaughters through college. Bought a new Ford Explorer. Takes some kind of trip every year.

The biggest one? ``In 1995 we went on a bus tour to Alaska, and caught a cruise ship down to Vancouver, B.C.,'' Slivnik said. This winter, the couple drove out to California and Phoenix, visiting relatives.

On the other hand, Slivnik still drives the 1982 Chevrolet Caprice that he bought used before he won the prize. And he still has a listed telephone number - even if one of the few downsides of winning was that he and his wife ``found out we had a lot more relatives than we actually had.''

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