Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

"You're a Guaranteed Winner": Composing "You" in a Consumer Culture

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

"You're a Guaranteed Winner": Composing "You" in a Consumer Culture

Article excerpt

This article explores the functional elegance of direct mail as it constructs its target audience. More specifically, it examines direct mailings included in a nationally publicized court case involving Publishers' Clearing House and articulates how the use of particular genre-based, rhetorical and linguistic strategies in these mailings construct reader identity. It argues that the documents use you-attitude to construct the identity of the reader as winner, implied reader devices to reinforce the reader's identity as winner and to establish the reader's identity as the writer's friend, and linguistic politeness strategies to build feelings of solidarity of the reader toward the writer. It concludes with the observation that the direct mail in our study, rather than being "junk," is really a skillfully written set of documents, successfully interweaving various discourse strategies and raising both ethical and professional issues in the process.

Within the discourse of enterprise/excellence, an active, 'enterprising' consumer is placed at the center of the market-based universe. What counts as 'good', or 'virtuous', in this universe is judged by reference to the apparent needs, desires and projected preferences of the 'sovereign consumer.'

Paul du Gay

[Features of the consumer culture] spin over all other aspects of contemporary life . . . . All perceptions and expectations, as well as life-rhythm, qualities of memory, attention, motivational and topical relevances are moulded inside the new 'foundational' institution--that of the market.

Zygmunt Bauinan

"News from the gods," LuLing murmured. "I won ten million dollars."

Amy Tan


Spilling out of our mailboxes, direct mail has become an integral contributor to the "discourse of enterprise/excellence" in consumer culture. Direct mail, or "junk mail," is criticized by some for its poor quality, high cost, and unsolicited nature. While acknowledging such criticism in Business and Administrative Communication, Kitty Locker (2000) identifies three components of what she terms good direct mail: a good product, a good mailing list, and good appeal. Although Locker briefly acknowledges that deception is an unfortunate aspect of some direct mailings, she focuses instead on articulating conventional organizational and stylistic strategies for writing effective direct mail. She contends that, in reality, "Direct mail is the one kind of business writing where elegance and beauty of language matter" (297).

But not all share Locker's upbeat perspective. Certainly, critics such as du Gay (1996) and Bauman (1988) are more alarmed than impressed when they see "virtue" being associated with consumer desire and when they see the market as the molding force in the perceptions, expectations, and even life-rhythms of the people living in a consumer culture. (1) But is such alarm generally shared? Is it justified? There is growing evidence that it is. Recent research exploring consumer vulnerability to scams and swindles suggests that fraud is becoming an increasing factor in the marketplace (see Gross, 1999, Langenderfer, 1998). This research further suggests that the elderly are particularly susceptible to consumer fraud (Langenderfer, 1998; McCabe & Gregory, 1998; McGhee, 1983). Deceptive practices in the discourse of enterprise have been the subject of litigation in many states. For example, Iowa, a state that has a large elderly population, has focused its efforts on deceptive practices in direct mail. On April 26, 2001, Thomas J. Miller, Iowa Attorney General, announced that Publishers Clearing House, a company that had long been a focus of concern, investigation and litigation in many states, had agreed to make important and permanent reforms in the way it conducts future sweepstakes contests; furthermore, Miller stated that Iowans who had been deceived would soon receive nearly $1 million in refunds (Dorman, 2002). …

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