The New York Times uses strategically opaque junk mail to get subscribers
Is it wrong to hold the New York Times to a higher standard? They certainly scold other companies harshly.
And, yes, the New York Times is a company. I know that sounds weird, but that’s because news outlets have collectively worked hard to create the impression that they are something they are not.
I received the following pitch from them to become a subscriber.
$2.15 per week strikes me as a very good deal. The Times has great writing that I admire. A lot goes into it, and I would love to support them. Cost is the primary reason I have never signed up, so this was intriguing.
At the same time, part of me knew that something had to be wrong. I couldn’t possibly hope to get a subscription at that price, but everything here indicates that it is true.
Let’s flip over to the back (despite no indication that there are other conditions there. The heading, which is partly cut off reads “9 REASONS TO GET The New York Times”.
The important information is in the smallest print to be found anywhere on the mailer and printed in the greyed-out panel at the very bottom. There, among various other sentences, it reads “This offer for newspaper delivery is valid only in areas served by The New York Times Delivery Service to readers who have not had delivery in the past 90 days. You will be billed on your credit card charged in advance for each 4-week billing period. At the end of your 4- or 8-week introductory period, delivery will continue at the regular rate unless you notify us. Prices are subject to change. …”
Nowhere on the front page was the word “introductory” used, nor was there an indication that important terms of the deal would be found on the back. Indeed, they ask for billing information before informing you what you will be billed for. Even infomercials usually feel the need to say “special, introductory price” when they plan on later jacking up the price once you become a subscriber. Here, there is no such indication until the last legally allowable moment. The indifference in this disclosure rivals drug companies.
I would guess this is legal. Barely. But does anyone doubt that the intention of this ad is to get people to sign up at a low rate and surprise them with a price hike that they hopefully don’t bother to notice or feel too busy to cancel? Every attempt possible seems to have been made to obscure the fact that the $2.15 per week price is temporary. You definitely get the sense that if they could leave off the greyed-out, peregrine-falcon-vision-appropriate disclaimer verbiage, they would. But they don’t want to be sued, so they can’t.
The reporting of the Times can sometimes be good. In a couple of instances they’ve succeeded in convincing me in adopting a broader conception of corporate responsibility. But here, we see them failing in the most basic, core element: fair and transparent dealing with customers.