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Faculty: Randall Bytwerk

The Millionaire on the Beach:
The Language of Get-Rich-Quick Plans

by Randall Bytwerk and Quentin Schultze

One of the best-selling books of recent years never hit the bookstore racks. Joe Karbo's The Lazy Man's Way to Riches has sold over three million copies worldwide since ads boasting of his life of ease on the beach first appeared fourteen years ago. All were peddled through the mail, according to the president of the firm.1 It is not listed in Books in Print.

Karbo died a millionaire in 1980, but few knew he was gone. The company he founded still runs the ads--and they still work. Sales are dropping now, but the Karbo's self-help tome still sold almost 50,000 copies in 1986. In the same year, John Wright's The Royal Road to Riches sold 61,450 copies, according to a mailing list company to which both firms sold the names of customers.2

Karbo is a legend in "direct response" marketing, a $200-billion-a-year industry where thousands of entrepreneurs hope to make it big by selling ideas and products directly to consumers. Most direct response marketers are legitimate vendors of real products. Others sell ideas about how to make it big. Karbo's firm, and a hundred others, promise readers that for $10 or $12.95 or $24.95 or more, with little work or skill, they too can make millions. All one needs is the right "secret plan." David Bendah, whose Lion Publishing Company offers dozens of books promising instant and easy wealth, claims to spend close to a million dollars a year placing twenty different full page ads in fifty publications.

There is a dazzling abundance of such plans. They are advertised in period- icals such as Time or Popular Mechanics, but also in at least a dozen periodicals devoted to money-making schemes with titles like Income Opportunities, Success Opportunities, Successful Opportunities, or New Business Opportunities. Direct mail is also a common way of marketing the plans, as those who buy even one of them will discover as their mailboxes fill with other plans.

In this paper, we analyze the strategies used by purveyors of get-rich- quick plans, strategies notable less for originality than for adroit application of ancient and tested ways of misusing language. We are interested not in plans that clearly state what kind of business the customer will learn about for his or her money, rather at the multitude of schemes which, often in thousands of enticing words, promise enormous wealth without giving an intimation as to how that wealth will come.

Basic Techniques

Most get-rich-quick pitches use techniques Karbo pioneered. They seldom reveal what the buyer will get for his money; more often they tell what the plan isn't rather than what it is. A typical pitch contains:

  • a confession that the person selling the plan was an uneducated failure;
  • a picture of the promoter standing in front of an expensive car or a palatial mansion;
  • testimonials from ordinary folk;
  • claims of uniqueness and ease;
  • criticisms of competing plans (some even say the author tried other schemes and failed--until he hit upon one that works);
  • a limited time offer;
  • a money-back guarantee, sometimes even more than that if the customer is not satisfied. Buyers are often urged to postdate checks a month or more.

Our emphasis is on the language used to sell the plans, not the plans themselves, since buyers usually have no idea of what they are purchasing. The language is invariably more sophisticated than the product.

The average get-rich-quick plan is cheaply printed common sense or nonsense, commonly the later. In this business, the real product is typically the hope of success, not the book or pamphlet. At best, buyers receive useful but readily available information about how to run a particular business. At worst, they receive information that, if followed, will lead to financial catastrophe. Karbo's book is typical, a combination of positive thinking and mail order techniques. Gary Elliston of Costa Mesa, California, boasts a plan "quite different from anything you have ever seen or heard." $24.95 buys a cheaply printed book advocating positive thinking and promotional product marketing (e.g., selling advertising on plastic cups used in hospitals). Other plans include "sure-fire" ways to beat the horses, win the lottery, sell mailing lists, arrange loans, help people get money from the government, benefit from multi-level marketing schemes, or peddle travel club memberships.

What persuades people to send in real money in the hope of improbable millions? To that we now turn.

Identification

Among the most quoted passages in Kenneth Burke's work is his sentence on identification: "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his".3 Get-rich-quick promoters are not close readers of Burke, but they know that persuasion and identification are inseparably related. In one way or another, these pitches identify the successful entrepreneur with the common person.

The promoters aim at people of limited means who want somehow to escape their financial woes. Nearly every pitch claims to be written by a one-time failure with no skills or qualifications who, by good fortune about to be shared with any reader able to part with $15.95, found financial salvation. The writers adopt a direct, personal, informal style, often with grammatical errors, using the second person, addressing the reader as a friend.

Karbo's classic ad explains: "You think you've got problems? Well, I remember when a bank turned me down for a $200 loan.... I remember the day my wife phoned me, crying, because the landlord had shown up at the house, demanding his rent--and we didn't have the money to pay it." Ruth Aycock from Salt Lake City confesses:

A little while ago, my life was so miserable. I had just gotten married and my husband lost his job.... To make matters worse, I got pregnant and yet we had no money for a doctor or insurance. The only thing we owned were a few dishes that I had collected before I got married. We were getting ready to sell our little car that was all smashed up in the front, but we would have ended up paying an additional $1,000 to the bank.4

The point is that the author is like the readers, only more so. His or her problems were as bad, in fact probably worse, than those of the reader. The authors present themselves as having been uneducated failures, broke, desperate, without hope. The strategy appeals to those in like straits, but perhaps also to those in the lower middle class who earn enough to survive, but see no prospects of real financial success. If Joe Karbo can do it, how much more likely it is that they can too.

Credibility Building

As a further way of identification, the pitches typically include testimonials from those who supposedly have applied the plan and earned their fortunes, usually identified only by their initials. Joe Karbo's ads, for example include these testimonials:

  • In February 1974 you sent me (for ten bucks) your Lazy Man's Way to Riches. Since then I have made approximately 50 grand ($50,000) just fooling around on the basis of your advice. You see, I really am lazy--otherwise I could have made 50 million! Thank you!
  • --Mr. R. McK., Atlanta, GA
  • Two years ago, I mailed you ten dollars in sheer desperation for a better life... One year ago, just out of the blue sky, a man called and offered me a partnership... I grossed over $260,000 cash business in eleven months. You are a God sent miracle to me.
  • --B.F., Pascagoula, Miss.

Don Joseph of Thornton, Illinois mails seven pages of testimonials from 101 delighted customers to potential buyers. No addresses or phone numbers are provided, though his letter notes the original letters are available at his office, for those who want to travel a thousand miles to check on a $12.95 purchase.

The better-known get-rich-quick gurus cite media "endorsements" of their plans--or so they suggest. Karbo's ads quote Time's 1973 description of him as "the prototype for...the `The Lazy Man's Way to Riches.'" The ads ignore the magazine's judgment that the book was "part rip-off, part a paean to the potential of positive thinking."

Some promoters invent imposing organizations to lend credibility to their products. Christ Steele, for example, claims that his plan has precociously been named the "Best Money-Making Program of the 1990's" by the "Consumer Wealth Research Institute," whose anonymous president is cited in his ads as saying "If you can't become a millionaire with this program, you can't become a millionaire at all." That is probably true.

Many follow Karbo's lead and provide the names of their bankers or accountants, or lists of their recent bank deposits, for those doubting their millionaire status. And many print their pictures, standing in front of a Rolls Royce or a mansion, visible evidence of their success.

In short, not only is the author like the reader, so apparently are large numbers of other once unfortunate souls who found prosperity though the plan being offered. Buyers need not believe the seller; they can trust all of the other successful buyers.

Fantastic Claims

The headlines alone of get-rich schemes are rhetorical marvels. "The Royal Road to Riches" is offered by John Wright. Other current ads claim: "JUST MAIL TWO LETTERS...AND `Make $15,000 in ONE (1) MONTH,'" "How to Become An Instant Millionaire," "Rich Texas Man Will Send You $10,000 In 3 Days!," or "$100,000 per Year While Vacationing in Europe." Such fantastic claims add curious plausibility to the schemes--readers realize they are not likely to make a million, but surely the advertiser wouldn't make such astounding claims unless there was at least some truth to them.

These outrageous claims enhance the persuasive value of mystery. Each plan typically claims to be original, unlike anything else in recorded history. Steele asserts that his plan is "Not Anything that is Advertised by Anyone Else in this Magazine." Promoters regularly list a dozen or more things their plan is not, encouraging the reader to believe that finally he or she has found the secret of instant wealth. Each plan is portrayed as a unique system that can be used by any common person with mysteriously fantastic results.

The mystery is emphasized by many words. The typical ad or letter contains thousands of words, words which however convey no information other than that buyers can make great sums of money without working hard. The reader is likely to scan the pitch for details, but none emerge. The abundance of words, typically a full magazine page ad or a multi-page letter, provide no clues. Often, only the illusion of information is given. Steele, for example, writes:

Let me tell you more about this "unique" money-making secret. With this secret the money can roll in fast. If you can follow easy instructions you can get started in a single afternoon and have ready cash in your pocket the next morning. In fact, this is the fastest legal method to make money ever invented in the history of this world. It is practically risk-free and it is not a dangerous gamble. Everything you do is tested and proven-effective and you can get started for less money than most people spend for a night on the town. The method is simple. It would be hard to make a mistake even if you tried. You don't need any degree or diploma. All you need is a little common sense and the ability to follow simple, easy, step-by-step instructions. You can use this secret to make money no matter how old or how young you are. There is no physical labor involved and everything is so easy it could be done by a teenager or a 100 year old man.

After a full page of small print, Steele still has not given the reading the slightest indication of what he is offering. The profusion of verbiage serves a useful function. The startling headline claims entice the reader into reading the text, hoping to learn at least something. After several thousand words readers are as curious as at the beginning; in fact, they are probably more curious, having taken several minutes to at least scan the pitch. That investment of time, a form of partial commitment, makes the reader likelier to order the plan.

Steele's plan is typical in its promise of effortless wealth. Karbo's ads describe his life of ease on the beach. Wright claims: "It will take you only two hours to learn how to use this secret. After that everything is almost automatic. After you get started you can probably do everything that is necessary in three hours per week." Tom Daniels of San Leandro, California offers to explain how to "make up to $3,000.00 or more per week without leaving home." David Alan of Las Vegas claims he and his wife can make a million dollars in a few hours while watching television. His plan turns out to be a simple pyramid scheme requiring 20,000,000 people to receive a mailing before the person on top makes his million.

Scarcity and the "Lucky Break"

The persuasive value of scarcity is well established. The get-rich-quick pitches regularly suggest that each appeal may be our last opportunity to purchase the plan. Elliston sent us two "Third Notices," requesting urgent action, though we never got notices one and two. Frank Wallace sends his offer for a new system for controlling other people (costing $69.95) by first class mail, with a postmark deadline for buyers of about two days after they receive it. So far, we've heard from him twice, both times with a tight deadline. Magazine ads often state that the offer is good for "30 days," when in fact the same ads may appear for a decade. The LASER ACCESS SYSTEM offers "YOUR LAST CHANCE TO FINANCIAL SUCCESS." Just as salesmen often win buyers by announcing "prices go up tomorrow," the get-rich-quick schemers create artificial scarcity.

Consistent with the scarcity argument is the idea, regularly stressed in these ads, of the "lucky break," a break which by definition may never recur. George Ropchan explains: "Several years ago I sat across the table from an elderly, wealthy man, who taught me a secret money-making program so powerful, that within minutes of listening to him I knew it would change my life completely.". Laura Johnson explains that she was having lunch with a friend who had obviously found a way to make great sums. At first the friend kept quiet, but "after two or three glasses of wine, her face lit up and she began to talk. She told me one of the most incredible secrets I've ever heard." The point is also consistent with the alleged incompetence of the plan's purveyor, a person who by his or her own confession is not sufficiently clever enough to think up the plan.

The reader, by good fortune, has chanced across the plan just as the plan's inventor once did. All that remains is to seize the opportunity. Wealth is presented in these plans as the result of magic, good luck, or divine providence. Magic is indeed the only way many plans could function, so astounding are their claims. Steele's ad, for example, promises two "free gifts" of redoubtable power on top of the secret of instant wealth: "The first bonus will guarantee that you accomplish anything that you want in life. The second bonus will show you how to achieve the one thing that money cannot buy: Perfect Health." All this for only $19.

Objections

Readers of tempting promises of easy wealth naturally have some suspicions that it might not be as easy to live on the beach as Karbo and his ilk proclaim, particularly since many will have been disappointed by previous promoters. In this genre, the pitches themselves anticipate and answer objections, without in the process revealing any information about the product. They offer general defenses to generic objections.

Probably nothing is more convincing to skeptical readers of get-rich- quick pitches than the money-back guarantee. Such guarantees answer the most important objection of all: "What if the the plan is worthless?" Karbo pioneered the idea of holding the buyer's check for 30 days before cashing it. Wright now offers a full year to return his plan. He even offers a bonus of $20 to those dissatisfied with it. Buyers learn only after sending in $12.95 that to get the "bonus" they must first try selling something by placing an ad somewhere--at a cost likely to exceed the $20 bonus. Tom Scott of New York City offers triple the price of his plan back to those dissatisfied. But they must try the plan for a year and keep a log before he will send the refund.

We took five established promoters up on their offers of money back. They all came, though in one case it took repeated requests. The newer ones are chancier. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Postal Service closed down a first-time seller after he admitted to having made up a full-page newspaper ad from his imagination, impressive sounding testimonials included. He told postal authorities that he had yet to write the book he was advertising. That is not unusual, by the way--Karbo started writing his book only after receiving the first $50,000 in orders. Aycock held off printing hers until 1500 orders had arrived.

Get-rich-quick promoters do not lose much by their money back offers. Karbo some years back had a 7% return rate, entirely acceptable in a business where 15% is tolerable. Guarantees lure many buyers who otherwise would pass the ad over. The seller "trusts" the buyer not to order the plan, learn its secrets, then mail it back for a refund. That "concession" on the part of the seller imposes an obligation on the reader, an obligation making it likelier that the reader will buy. And although most customers will be dissatisfied with what they get, sending the material back is a considerable bother. To return the plan means admitting once more to having been taken, a painful admission to make. It also means wrapping the material up and taking it to the post office to find how much postage is needed--hardly worth it for the small cost of most plans.

And even if the book is returned, the promoter makes money selling names and address to other promoters. Aycock claims to sell her list twenty to thirty times monthly for a nickel a name. From the mail we have received after buying her book, we believe her. After ordering six plans, we received over 200 pieces of mail from other promoters offering us "unique" ways to make our fortunes.

A hapless buyer, likely to have been disappointed by previous schemes, needs some encouragement before parting with another $20. Get-rich-quick pitches usually state that the plan is different from all the others, which don't really work. This is important, since people who fall for one plan will usually fall for others, but only if they think the others are fresh. As Elliston writes: "I know you've probably heard this same kind of story before, and it would be foolish of me not to at least briefly address myself to your skepticism." He then claims his scheme is unique, without giving any idea of what it involves. Scott writes: "I short-changed our skimpy food allowance sending away for one money-making plan after another. I found out what you probably already know. They all turned out to be baloney. The only one who made money were the companies who sold them." Scott lists fifteen things his plan is not, but not what it is. A standard strategy is to commiserate with the reader over money wasted on worthless plans, always with the injunction that here, finally, is one that works.

But why is the secret of the ages being offered for $12.95? If the plan really works, why is its promoter bothering to offer it to others? Many promoters take the time to answer the question. Aycock writes that "because of the great joy and happiness I'm now experiencing with my husband and family, I've decided to write my little secret in a book. I want so badly to share my happiness and my little secret that no one else knows." Her little secret turns out to be the same secret offered by dozens of others--she recommends selling things through the mail. Steele, who offers "the most powerful millionaire-maker in history!!!" writes:

Why, you may ask, am I willing to share this secret with you? To make money? NO WAY. First, I already have all the money and possessions I will ever need in this life. Second, I am tired of seeing the poor and the disadvantaged being used and abused by the rich and powerful.... Third, nothing satisfies me more than sharing my secret only with those who realize a golden opportunity and get on it quickly."

The point is not that the justifications are compelling, rather they at least answer the question the reader has. A variety of research demonstrates that a bad reason is often more persuasive than no reason.

As an additional spur to immediate action, many have imitated Karbo's classic line: "A month from today, you can be nothing more than 30 days older--or you can be on your way to getting rich. You decide." Put that way, what's $10?

Conclusion

Why do people buy plans without having any idea what they will receive?

Like the lottery, the movies, romance novels or diet products, most plans sell cheap dreams.

Few people would pay $24.95 for Elliston's cheaply printed manual if they had an opportunity to see it first. But his tantalizing prose suggests that his plan, different from all the rest, is the way to financial security. Just as lottery ticket buyers are largely in the lower income groups, so are buyers of these plans, and with much the same motivation--the hope that financial problems may be solved by a miracle. Indeed, marketers of mail order lottery tickets are big buyers of the names of those who have purchased get- rich-quick schemes. And just as there is always next week's lottery drawing, there is always another "unique" way to riches. In short, these plans appeal to the same needs met by television shows like The Millionaire or Fantasy Island. For a modest price, they offer the chance to dream.

Many plans tie their pitch into the American tradition of positive thinking within a vaguely religious framework. The ordinary, uneducated person, given the right break, can make it big. The promoters write almost as evangelists. Having found financial salvation, they wish to spread the blessing as eagerly as any evangelist. As Joe Karbo said in 1974: "Honestly, this is a religious outlet for me. I have zeal, and expect everyone who works for me to have zeal.5

The very outrageousness of the claims may be part of their persuasiveness. Humans are easily able to ignore evidence that they do not wish to see. Those wishing to earn effortless cash know that the secret of prosperity is not for sale for $10. But they would like it to be. One they have begun reading the seductive prose, they have already committed themselves in part to the argument, a commitment requiring only a modest investment for something they very much want to be true.

The buyer's own part in the process makes it harder to send the plan back for a refund. Few buyers probably really expect that they will be able to make millions while watching television in their living room. It is hard to be angry at someone who has explained, for $14.95, that the way to wealth is to think positively and sell things through the mail. The buyer is more likely to feel embarrassed.

Get-rich-quick ads and letters demonstrate that not only was P. T. Barnum correct in estimating the birth rate of gullible persons, but that the old misuses of language remain as effective today as they ever were.

Notes

  1. J. Flanagan, personal communication, July 22, 1987.
  2. Mega Media Associates, personal correspondence, November 23, 1987.
  3. Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, p. 55.
  4. This and other quotations from get-rich-quick promotional material comes from mailings in the files of the authors.
  5. H. Minetree, "Why is this man loafing?," Money, September, 1974, p. 58.

Note

Originally published in Etc.: A Review of General Semantics, 47 (1990), pp. 239-248)