Celebrity spokesmen Ed McMahon and Dick Clark were accused of unfair and deceptive trade practices Monday when Florida’s attorney general filed suit against them and the magazine marketing company they promote, saying their sweepstakes mailings deliberately trick consumers.
One promotion suggests the recipient is one of two who will win $11 million, depending on who replies first. In the race to win, some people have flown across country to hand-deliver their entries.
Thousands more have subscribed to magazines they didn’t want, believing it would increase their odds of winning, said Gary Betz, special counsel to Attorney General Bob Butterworth.
“It’s really tragic,” Betz said. “They get people’s hopes up so high that they’ve actually won something once in their life and then send them crashing.”
The suit was filed against American Family Publishers of Newark, N.J., and Time Customer Service Inc. of Tampa, Fla., days after an 88-year-old California man, Richard Lusk, disappeared from his Victorville, Calif., home. He had flown into Tampa International Airport clutching a sweepstakes mailing, ready to retrieve his winnings.
“Richard Lusk, final results are in, and they’re official: You’re our newest $11 million winner,” the mailing said, in part.
It was the second time Lusk had made the trip, and at least the 20th time in four years that airport police were called in to help befuddled sweepstakes entrants, said airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan.
Many had come without return tickets or had frantically asked for directions to the address printed on their envelope, trying to beat what they thought was one other person racing for the winnings.
Richard Lusk’s son, Bill Lusk, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said the mailings perplexed even him. “It makes you think that since your numbers match, you have the winning entry,” he said. “The fine print is just extremely confusing.”
The attorney general’s suit, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, seeks $10,000 to $15,000 per violation. Betz said the number of counts could go into the millions, depending on how many mailings went out in Florida. “The numbers are astronomical,” Betz said.
The state’s complaint alleges the company used “a sophisticated and subtle promotional ruse, the effect of which is to sell magazines. …”
Once the recipient chooses a magazine, the entry states, his response receives “priority handling.”
Entering without buying a magazine requires that a 3x5 card be sent to a different address with the words “NO ORDER ENCLOSED” written on the side, enclosed in an envelope with a non-adhesive address label.
In a statement, American Family Publishers said it had presented winners with more than $77 million in cash and prizes to date.
“Our mailings are not designed to entice entrants to Tampa to deliver entries. Nor are they designed to defraud,” the company said. “The lawsuit is completely without merit.”
A representative for Ed McMahon, Lester Blank, said the former talk-show host only worked with reputable companies. “All that’s not true,” Blank said of the charges. “They’re very legitimate.”
A spokeswoman for Dick Clark Productions said Clark is vacationing and unable to comment.
Florida is the first of what may become several states pursuing the companies and their high-profile pitchmen. The National Association of Attorneys General has been discussing deceptive sweepstakes advertising.
Private lawsuits seeking to become class actions have been filed, one in Maryland, on behalf of residents in that state, and one in Tampa.
The company may face political troubles, too.
Democratic State Sen. “Skip” Campbell planned a press conference today to unveil a new sweepstakes lottery bill. The bill would impose strict standards on type face size, color and wording and impose harsher penalties for mailings that deceive seniors.
Bill Lusk, who plans appearances on several talk and news shows to highlight the problem, said he’s thrilled his father’s bad experience has been a catalyst.
“They deserve some heat and light,” Lusk said. “They’ve been doing some bad things to people.”