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May 20, 2007

Money-Grubbing Surveys

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I can't remember if I ranted about this sort of thing before. But I don't care: I'm steamin'.

What I'm unhappy with is an item I recently got in the mail. Above the address window were the words "CENSUS DOCUMENT CN-1217 RECIPIENT." Huh? Ain't no Federal census till 2010 -- that's one memory from my demographer days that hasn't totally faded.

Inside the envelope were two items, one a four-page cover letter, the other a folded four-page "Free Speech Census" survey form tacked together by a "security seal" that's supposed to indicate whether or not the "census schedule" had been tampered with (the horror!).

At the upper-right corner of the form was a bloc "CN USE ONLY" with fill-in lines for "Date Rec," "Rec by" and "Auth Code." Authorization code? -- who are they kidding? It's eyewash intended to make naiïve readers think this is a Big Deal.

Below that it another bloc containing a "Registration #" and "Voting District Code." The latter was PMCC507, which strikes me as being arbitrary; it doesn't correspond to any geographical coding system I'm aware of.

The next item down was the following statement, typographical format as shown:

This official census is registered in the name above and is protected under seal.
All census documents must be accounted for upon completion of this crucial project. If you choose not to participate in this survey, please return this document in the enclosed envelope at once. If your security tab was altered in any way, please make that indication in the box in the upper left-hand corner of this page.

Good grief. The BS is overflowing my computer and soiling the rug. A census is an attempt to get a complete count of something. This is no census. As best I can tell, I got it because a magazine I subscribe to probably rented its mailing list. And I have no idea what's meant by the word "official" -- it's manifestly not governmental because the organization behind it is something called College Network, Inc.

The survey items are largely "push" questions intended to get the respondent fired up over issues rather than to actually get information. Here are a few "questions";

7. Professor Ward Churchill claims that those murdered in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were not innocent victims. Do you agree or disagree with Churchill's statement.

15. Did you know that vandals routinely destroy entire print runs of conservative publications on campuses across the country?

19. Do you agree with the following statement? As stewards of freedom, we must stop America's university system from being overrun by politically correct professors who stifle free speech and ridicule the values of the Founding Fathers.

20. Will you help CN protect free speech and open debate on campus?

Aha! Item 20 exposes all -- even to most of those who fell for the act up to that point.

On the next page is a small bloc of optional "demographic" items intended to "help give CN more accurate results." Umm, demographic data have nothing to do with the "accuracy" of the results. If I filled out the "census" (I won't: I'll hold on to it for a while after I post this and then throw it away) and lied in every response, the data CN gets from me will be totally inaccurate. Demographic data can be useful for projecting survey data to a larger population, provided certain conditions are met. But that has nothing to do with accuracy of anything other than such a projection.

By the way, one "demographic" item is the respondent's email address.

Farther down the page is the "CN Support Form" where the presumably fired-up respondent can check amounts ranging from $25 to $750 to support CN's work. There's even a place for one to enter credit card information.

That four-page cover letter noted above deals with many of the points in the "census" questions. What's missing is the payment checklists and forms. And what's added is a stronger appeal for support.

Okay. Maybe this census gimmick was carefully pre-tested and shown to deliver contribution rates two or three times what a cover letter and response card alone would yield. Marketing and advertising can be odd beasties at times.

Regardless, this "census" gambit is deceitful. As I tried to make clear, it is no census at all. CN is simply trying to push respondents into contributing. I think the honest way to get contributors is through straightforward solicitation, not deceit.

What bothers me most is that, in the abstract, I'm sympathetic to CN's concerns regarding America's higher education system. It pains me that potential allies of mine seem to be acting like jerks.



posted by Donald at May 20, 2007


Sounds like something the repugnant David Horowitz has something to do with.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 20, 2007 10:27 PM

Some quick googling seems to indicate that David Horowitz has nothing to do with it at all. I don't agree with everything he says, but I believe that this scam sounds very much the sort of thing he would hate.

Posted by: Graham Asher on May 21, 2007 3:37 PM

The use of pseudo-official "forms" by direct-mail solicitors is a plague. Some "respectable" institutions do it - I've gotten several such from the RNC. (Also a few from misguided Democrats.)

This one sounds like the creation of a direct-mail hustle operation: that is, a "fund-raising" group that exists solely to generate business for its administrators. They feed on the outrage of the frustrated. In the 90s there were various "anti-Clinton" hustles, peddling over-the-top allegations.

(It occurs to me that the 9-11 Truther movement probably has attracted some of these scum, who help keep it pumped up.)

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 22, 2007 3:33 AM

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