05 Oct. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Scum by Reflex

I joke about having a softkey that makes it easier for me to type "evil airline scum."  At least you think I'm joking.  Today I had an unusual demonstration of just how ridiculous the airlines are.  This particular incident transcends scumility and extrudes a pseudopod into the slime bucket of self-parody.  I received a letter from an airline.  This particular one styles itself "US Airways" and seems to be in cahoots with MasterCard, one of the organizations that has managed to add a sales tax to our economy with little notice or protest.  The letter exclaimed "Earn AWARD Travel Faster," promised me "25,000 bonus miles,**" and notified me that I was "PRE-APPROVED††."

These offers are inevitably complicated, hence the asterisks and †† marks, which probably have a name as well.  They use them in much the way I do in my blog—they keep the fiddling details away from the flow of the document.  They also keep the reader away from the part they really aren't keen on having him read, the "fine print."  Now fine print has a place in the world.  When you get a legal document or commercial solicitation in the mail, there are all sorts of contractual terms that may come into play, or that the sender may be required to disclose.  They are typically printed in tiny type on a thin sheet and are discarded with the envelope as they almost certainly should be.  Tiny type on thin sheets saves money on postage and, especially in the case of required disclosures, is a boon, since it tells you what to throw away.  But this case was a little different.  Consider the document I was sent:

  • On one side was the offer itself, with the asterisks.

  • On the other side, was the "fine print." 

The offer, hodgepodge though it was, was printed in normal-size, fully-legible type.  The "fine print," which could easily have fit on the other, completely blank, which is to say with no other printing and no impediment to being printed, side, was deliberately shrunk to make it difficult to read.

Here's what the letter looked like.  On the left, you see the front of the page.  As with most good business letters, the pitch was delivered on one side of one sheet of paper.  I could read it all, except for the fine print, without any annoying wrist flipping.  On the right, you see a small excerpt.  If I did this right, and your monitor isn't special, the excerpt is about 2/3 the size that it appears on the letter.
Here's what the "fine print" looked like.  Despite the fact that they had the whole of the rear of the letter on which to write ita full blank pagethey deliberately shrunk it to mice-type size to make it difficult to read.  On the right, an excerpt is expanded by the same ratio as the excerpt above.

Arguments that this is an ink-saving sop to the environmentalists seem improbable. 

I can think of only two reasons that they may have done this.  I normally have to work at my paranoia, and I don't want to give them more credit than they deserve, so the first reasondeliberate evil, I would like to discount.  The second reason fits better:  They do it by reflex.  Not one person, from the marketing department that constructed the offer, to the battery of white-lipped attorneys that vetted it, to the proofreaders, to whatever executive is in charge of these things, thought to say:  "Hey - look at the reverse side!  We have all this white space so instead of making the print tiny like we normally do, let's make it large enough to read!"

You're right.  I'm being too kind.  It probably was deliberate.  Evil airline scum.

After all this agonizing over a throwaway piece of junk mail, no doubt you have a question.  "Richard!  What about the offer itself?  Did you go for the '25,000 bonus miles**'?"  Despite the fact that I didn't cover travel in the "Think Like A RIchard Day" quiz (answers tomorrow) I think you know me well enough to answer that one.  If not, contemplate this fine irony.  I have been offered 25,000 "miles."  The circumference of the earth just happens to be about 25,000 miles.  If I accepted their blandishments, I would have the privilege of being stuffed in an uncomfortable seat, deprived of liquid nourishment, and with luck and a few wasted days, arrive back where I started.  

© 2006
Richard Factor

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