The New York Times uses strategically opaque junk mail to get subscribers

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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25 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    Yep, typical sleazy-ness.

    On a similiar circumstance, I recently solicited new insurance and got a quote from a well recognized insurer. Got the quote, it was a good deal. Only when I agreed and we got to the Terms and Conditions, was I informed that my CC would be billed directly automatically. When I demurred and said to send a paper bill, funny how I could “do that”. Not even for a higher rate. “Not how we do things”. Transparent has hell.Report

  2. James Hanley says:

    What do you expect from a commie-liberal newspaper? The WSJ would never pull such a stunt!Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    I’m not surprised by their tactics and it is almost impossible to say who should be held to what standard especially in journalism.

    Journalism has been suffering lots of losses lately because of the internet and the fact that digital advertising pays penny’s as compared to print advertising. Many cities no longer have a daily print newspaper. The ones that remain operate on slower budgets. The SF Chronicle is basically becoming a local version of Huff Post (though not as illuminating) and is largely only good for restaurant reviews and looking at pictures of nice homes for sale.

    People seem to get angry at the NY Times for everything and this perplexes me. I’ve seen people rant about the amount of coverage their culture pages gives to NY events even though they are the “New York Times”, people dislike the fact that they have fluff society sections that don’t have the same sting as their in-depth front page reporting. People don’t like the real estate sections covering upper-middle class and above properties through various columns.

    I am really perplexed at this rage and demand for consistency. I can’t think of a good reason why the Sunday Styles or Real Estate sections should match the front page? It is the styles and real estate section for Pete’s sake, they serve a whole different need than the front page?Report

    • I’m not surprised by their tactics and it is almost impossible to say who should be held to what standard especially in journalism.

      Um. I’m not sure how to communicate how much I disagree with this. A good bit of what we do as bloggers is hold people to standards they have never themselves agreed to. (Or do you say “who am I to judge” when someone says bad things about Goldman Sachs?)

      Also, as I mentioned, the Times itself has held other companies to incredibly high, make-believe standards at times when nothing was actually done wrong.

      “Journalism” doesn’t really work as an excuse either because (1) whatever is happening in the industry, the NYT is not the San Francisco Chronicle and (2) having trouble making your budget doesn’t excuse trying to pull a fast one on your desired customer base. I don’t recall the Times itself arguing to hold less-profitable multi-million-dollar corporations to a lower standard than the more profitable ones.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Off topic, but thanks. Ever since I read that story, I was confused.

        Banks overcharging customers and having deliberate delays to charge more is a perfectly believable scam for ripping off customers, which is why the story seemed plausible at first. But while that works on low-information individual bank account holders that don’t know what’s going on, it’s logically an unworkable scam for operating large-scale long-term storage facilities. After the first year-long delay getting access to their aluminium, surely companies would use a different warehouse company. (And possibly sue, because, seriously!)

        That said, it might still be a good idea for the commodities market to stop letting the traders operate the market’s official warehouses, because, yes, there is a potential for manipulation there(1)…but that has no real effect on the actual cost of aluminum.

        1) It might actually be interesting to see if average ship times correlated with Goldman-Sach’s market positions. Do the warehouses mysteriously get better at shipping at certain times?

        And I’m not even sure which direction would make sense for them to bet…if they slow ‘removing aluminum from the market’ down, that logically means real aluminum prices go up, as there’s less (or ‘not more’) real aluminum…but does that mean prices in the commodities market go up too…or do they go *down*, because there’s more (or ‘not less’) aluminum still in the commodities market?Report

  4. gingergene says:

    Well, maybe I’m just a super-savvy / cynical consumer, but when I read “four weeks at 75% off” (in the last paragraph on the front), I assume that the prices they are advertising are for four weeks only and will increase after that. If it was that price for an indefinite period, they wouldn’t say “four weeks”. It seems no different to me than the sort of introductory rates you get from Comcast or AT&T for cable/internet/landline. For instance, DirecTV advertises all kinds of great rates that are good for one year with a two-year contract. At least with most other services, you’re free to cancel* when the intro period is up. Try that with DirecTV, and they make you pay back all the money you “saved”.

    *Or renegotiate, which often works surprisingly well.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to gingergene says:

      I just checked the recycling for our weekly cable company offer. They do mention the introductory rate, but they have an asterisks after it and disclose on the front of the letter that it is for 6 months only and what it will go up to after that.

      It seems that the Times on this particular count fails to live up to the standard of “just as bad as Comcast”.Report

      • gingergene in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        There is an asterisk by the first 75% off. (Intro paragraph, …now at 75% off*) Doesn’t that asterisk point to the fine print on the back?Report

      • gingergene in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Also, this is the same deal I have with my magazine subscriptions and similar to my hometown newspaper subscription. I got all the magazines at a discount price, but if I don’t cancel at the end of the subscription, it continues at a new price. My newspaper rate is contingent on direct debit or credit card charge, rather than a paper bill remittance.

        Again, perhaps I am just jaded, but this seems like SOP for many companies. I know what an introductory offer looks like, and I know to check for the price after that. I get a similar offer from the NYT on a nearly weekly basis, but I’ve always known the prices quoted were intro rates. It never occurred to me that they would be otherwise.Report

      • There is an asterisk by the first 75% off. (Intro paragraph, …now at 75% off*) Doesn’t that asterisk point to the fine print on the back?

        Good point. It is there. My Comcast mailer has the information on the same page though and not well after the call to action. So, I guess it’s only a bit worse than Comcast?Report

      • this seems like SOP for many companies

        I think you’re right for some companies. Certainly the Times isn’t alone in this particular style of deception. But I don’t think many people working for Comcast think of themselves as the good guys. I would expect the NYT absolutely thinks that of themselves as good. And this seems to be evidence to the contrary.Report

      • gingergene in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Huh. I just don’t see anything to complain about here.

        (1) They offer a subscription with an introductory rate. Lots of companies do that.
        (2) You pay for the subscription by credit card. Welcome to 2014.
        (3) The newspaper subscription is on-going until it is cancelled. Welcome to 1833.

        Do you expect too much, or do I expect too little?Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @vikram-bath The journalists working for the Times presumably see themselves as good guys in a way that Comcast does not, but the business side of the paper doesn’t really have anything to do with that.Report

    • Chris in reply to gingergene says:

      Yeah, I saw it was a 4-week price, but I see what Vikram’s saying, too. They get your credit card, and don’t actually say that your rate will go up after 4 weeks, unless you read the really small print, which of course most people won’t do. Hell, they won’t read most of the big print, which the NYT is counting on, of course, because once they have your credit card, you’re probably not going to cancel until after they’ve charged at the regular rate when your introductory rate expires, and they’re almost certainly going to be able to keep most of the money they get by doing that to a whole lot of people.Report

      • gingergene in reply to Chris says:

        I guess I understand “subscription” differently than most people here. I understand there are two types: one for a set length of time (usuallly 1 year, but maybe more or less) and those that are on-going. This is an on-going subscription. Every newspaper I’ve ever subscribed to has been on-going. I have never in my life had to renew a newspaper subscription. The only change has been from paper bills with paper envelopes to credit cards and direct debit. And while the old paper system allowed for a “pocket cancellation” by simply not sending in payment, the credit card system is the new normal- which most people, customers and newspapers alike, prefer.

        Simply put, I don’t think the NYT is doing anything shady or out-of-the-ordinary. They are doing the same thing every newspaper I’ve known has done: they offer an introductory rate to an on-going subscription paid by credit card. The subscriber may cancel the subscription at any time, but it won’t end until they do so.Report

  5. Jim Heffman says:

    Also, there was absolutely no warning label suggesting that the toaster could not serve as headgear.Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    I’m not with you on this one, @vikram-bath . They say right there “Four weeks at 75% off”. 75% off what? Another price, obviously… a price you’ll be expected to pay if you stay on beyond the four (or eight) weeks. I get these offers all the time and as soon as I see that there is a finite period during which a price is given, I (rightfully) assume that the price is only offered during that time.Report

  7. ScarletNumbers says:

    Sorry @vikram-bath I have to agree with @gingergene here. The coupon clearly states that the rate is for either 4 or 8 weeks. In fact, the inducement to choose 8 weeks is that you would get getting the savings for an extra 4 weeks. This implies that the savings are going to end after the trial period is over.

    They also say over and over that it is a 75% savings. This implies that the continuing rate is going to be $8.60/week.Report

    • When you are relying on the ability of your consumers to solve that math equation before giving you their credit card number, you’re basically hoping that they don’t bother. Theoretically, at least, the NYT ought to hold itself to a higher standard. Yet news outlets in general tend to be more opaque about it than even cable companies. Which is kind of funny, though may be a regulatory issue.Report

  8. Doctor Jay says:

    I’d just like to say that the sort of comments above me are exactly the sort of comments you see on any situation that both fails a test of human decency and is widespread. Which is this situation.

    Yes, to me the bold-faced “75% off for 4 weeks” was a big tipoff at what was going on, as was the requirement of putting in my credit card. This is because this sort of thing has been pushed at me so many times in the past in one form or another, so I just expect it. I get a very mild sort of annoyance out of it once I calculate the true (non-discounted) rate, and I generally ignore said promotional offer. Sometimes to my detriment.

    But taking Vikram Bath to task for it also seems kind of victim blamey to me. Yeah, it is kind of underhanded to put the minimum focus possible on the fact that it’s an introductory offer.

    There are lots and lots of situations just like this – kind of shady, but widespread. The question is figuring out what could be changed, and how it could be changed.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Doctor Jay says:


      You bring up an interesting point. The strange this is, this is even more widespread that most people know or would believe. And we tend to get up in arms about things like the NYT and Comcast which are often trivial when compared to some of the other shady practices.

      Take for instance, independent schools (my industry). Do you know how much out and out bullshit we peddle to parents to get them to sign on the dotted line? And then how much more out and out bullshit we peddle to them to get donations? I’m not even talking about shining a favorable light on the favorable parts of the school; I’m talking outright lies. The problem is they are delivered face-to-face during informal tours and open houses and the like; they don’t come via shiny brochures in the mail. Even the websites are often useless junk if you know how to read them; they/we actively bank on the fact that you don’t.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Doctor Jay says:


      If we are going to use victim blamey in this situation, the term has lost all meaning. None of us were blaming Vikram of anything. At least I wasn’t. He clearly figured out that this was a bit of ploy.

      When is it possible to tell someone that X is clear, not a scam, etc. and not be victim-blamey.Report