Too many Americans who answer sweepstakes mailings are duped by suspect language such as this:
You are about to be announced as double winner of $10 million.
But what if those words were followed by this qualifier:
The numerical odds that you will actually win are 1 in 150 million.
Such a cold splash of truth may soon be commonplace in the sweepstakes industry. A bill speeding through Congress is aimed at curbing deception in an industry that originally started out just to sell magazines but has since taken on a Las Vegas-like aura.
Fortunately, most people don't fall for the hype of these meddlesome mailings, despite that momentary thought of striking it rich by just responding to a come-on. With over 1 billion such letters mailed out each year, who hasn't been tempted?
Unfortunately, a vulnerable few who are too trusting, too prone to gamble, and who don't read the fine print - usually the elderly - often squander their life savings by believing they must buy and buy from the sweepstakes on the false hope of improving their chances.
It's all a cruel joke that needs a government response. Some states have led the way by forcing companies to revise their ways. The national legislation, which has already passed the Senate, would require a sweepstakes to make disclaimers in large type that purchases will not improve the odds of winning.
Other measures would bar envelopes from imitating a federal document and require names and addresses of sweepstake sponsors to be clearly stated. Hefty fines would help enforce these rules.
But by far the most interesting rule would require sweepstakes to give the estimated odds of winning.
Beyond just helping at-risk people see through the deceptive language of vaguely promised winnings, the government has opened a whole new possibility.
Why not require the states to declare the odds of winning the lottery? And ditto for casinos?
If Congress truly wants to help Americans who waste their last dollar in contests of chance, then let's ask full disclosure of all the get-rich-quick industries, not just the sweepstakes.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society