“Sit down before reading this letter”
ANTESCRIPT: I have originally written this essay for the English 101, Section 17, Instructor Sheila Kineke in Fall of 1990 at the University of Arizona. I was a 33-year-old political refugee, and English was chronologically my fifth language. During my first year in the USA, I used to walk with a yellow Turkish-English pocket dictionary in my hand. My college education in the country of my birth had been interrupted by a dozen detentions and four years in prison, followed by official ban from continuing my college education. Without a college degree, I managed to become a best-selling author, keeping the first spot in list for years. With the immigration, I would gain my freedom of speech and many other opportunities; yet I had to sacrifice other things. I would lose the umlaut of “u” in my last name together with the utility of the main tool of my occupation, that is my native language. Soon, I decided to disobey the Turkish law, and enrolled in/on/at the University of Arizona. I still remember the torturous hours in the university’s bookstore browsing the text books in the longest shelves of more than hundred English 101 courses offered for the approximately 3000 freshmen students. Torturous, since every instructor was requiring the books of a guy named Shakespeare. The spelling of the name alone was a challenge for me. I had no idea about him, but it took me only a few seconds to realize that I was encountering the biggest obstacle between me and a college diploma. Shakespeare’s books were not in English; it was totally a different language. I did not have patience nor appetite to learn a sixth language, especially after age thirty-three. I already had difficulty with English, especially with its propositions in-on-at-of-off (see enroll, above) and the ubiquitous the. I prayed to God to find a san-Shakespeare instructor. I was in a crisis mode. I was just giving up hope, I came across one. Sheila’s was the only English 101 course that did not require Shakespeare. Instead she required July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer who would soon win the Nobel Prize in literature. Yes, Sheila and Nadine, both women, saved my college education. As for the following essay, I wrote it as a class assignment. Sheile liked it and wanted to submit it for Composition Competition among freshmen. My essay won the first place in the category of Rhetorical Analysis. It was published in the next edition of the English 101 textbook as a good example of rhetorical analysis, which gave me great confidence and hope. I would be able to transfer many of my writing skills without mastering the language.
You are, most likely, already sitting down when you are reading this essay. But John Smith was standing in the kitchen while he opened a “hybrid letter” bearing that suggestion in a quotation. I am sure you are wondering how a letter can be a “hybrid”. Well, in the US almost every non-homeless person receives two kinds of mail: Normal and “junk”. This particular letter was in between. Although it had all the qualities (!) of junk mail, it was from a respected magazine to which he was a subscriber. Since it was a hybrid letter he had mixed feelings towards it. Should he open it, or throw in the trash? After a short reluctance on this crucial issue, he opened it as you would have predicted.
Most Americans pay attention to junk mail a short period in their life, especially at their private address. Until they recognize the face of junk mail their honesty make them easy prey for experienced marketers. Our John who received that letter was one of those naive Americans.
The letter was a successful appeal to the dream of an average American. It was an excellent example of verbal communication and a fulfillment of a manipulative and tricky commercial plan. The letter made him go through all kind of emotions. It excited him, sweetly challenged him, intrigued his curiosity, caressed his greed, showed him colorful dreams, reminded him of his friends, made him act like a child, promised him some free goods, and finally, repeated the great news. However, the letter, with all its serious appearance, was a hook. As an average American he was not able to read and to see between the lines which draw the hypocritical face of the sender. The tricky strategy, the subliminal message, and manipulative tone of the letter was beyond his perception. The creators of the letter were experienced and highly educated human hunters. They had proved their skills multi-millions of times on average people.
“Great news Mr. John Smith… You’re getting closer to a chance of becoming a multi-millionaire!” was the first paragraph of that letter. John’s response was several single words with exclamation marks bouncing between his brain and heart: Wow! Really! Unbelievable!… He had every reasons to get excited. First of all, this letter was from a highly respected and internationally popular magazine, Reader’s Digest. So, it was no joke. Besides, his pocket was empty; not multi-million, only multi-thousands would be enough to drive him crazy with happiness. In addition, it was a personal letter, since the font character was not the same as published materials and his name was not an alien in the text. (Like millions of Americans, he did not know that today’s computers can send the same letters to millions of people with their name embedded in the letter with the same color and type of letters.) So, he read the beginning paragraph again: “Great news Mr. John Smith…. You’re getting closer to a chance of becoming a multi-millionaire!”
As he continued he met a very important word in the beginning of the second paragraph: “Important…” He held his breath and started drinking the words with his eyes. “… The secret of winning an extra $ 125,000.00 prize will be revealed somewhere in this letter. Read it carefully to discover how that prize could be yours.” Wow again! After great news a rewarding mystery! He was familiar with solving mysteries, for he was an avid TV (lots of detective shows) watcher. But he was not receiving any awards from his accurate predictions. Now, he had an opportunity to solve a mystery and win an extra $ 125,000.00 prize, just by reading two pages! What is more, he was under an intellectual challenge. He must discover that secret and win that money in seconds! But he decided not to rush. He had time and he was supposed to read it carefully. He knew that It must be a very hidden secret.
Dear Mr. Smith:
What does a limousine pulling up to 512 W. Illusion St. have in common with a private jet landing at Tucson International Airport… An all-expense paid weekend in New York City… And, BEST OF ALL, FIVE MILLION DOLLARS?
He closed his eyes for a while and watched the king of the cars standing by his door. He and his wife are flying from joy. He notices his neighbor watching them enviously from behind his curtains. Then he is resigning from his job. He is not a slave of 9-to-5 anymore. All of these joyful pictures passed through his mind in a few seconds. He felt an overwhelming relief.
You’ve already come through two of three stages in the $10,250,000.00 Sweepstakes. The next and final stage is the Grand Prize drawing. If you’re our big winner, The Smith Grand Prize experience could begin when a special courier arrives at 512 W. Illusion St. with a letter….
“I suggest you sit down before reading this letter. If any family or friends are with you, call them in before continuing. We have some wonderful news that’s going to make a big difference in your life. You won the $5 Million Grand Prize in our $10,250,000.00 Sweepstakes!”
He wanted to sit down in advance and close his eyes again and visualize this great moment of his life. But he did not. He felt it to be irrational, and un-realistic. So, he preferred to continue the reading.
As if the writers of the letter were closely following his thoughts and feelings, the next paragraph started to rationalize this great news:
Your chance to win is real. Remember: only 7 in every 100 Arizona residents are among those who were selected to receive this opportunity to enter the Sweepstakes and save money on a new Reader’s Digest Gift Subscription. But not only did The Smith name first appear on our computerized master list at Stage 1, it was registered last week by our IBM 3090 computer on the attached prize entry cards…
Really? Only 7 in 100? He felt himself very lucky. He did not feel a need to doubt this information. He did not even try to figure out his actual chances of winning. The letter was not telling him that he was among 200 thousand Arizona residents, or among 17 million Americans who were selected to receive this single opportunity! Instead of 17,000,000 to 1 odds, he had only 7 to 1 odds in his mind! He must have been very lucky! He had already passed two stages even without knowing them.
He also did not wonder why this letter was giving him some unnecessary information. For instance, was it important for him what kind of computer they are using for registration? Why did they specify it as “IBM 3090 computer”? Could it be an indirect ad for “IBM” trademark? Or was it merely a communication strategy suggesting “a deep self-disclosure to create trust and intimacy”? (Interpersonal Communication, Richard L. Weaver II, p. 110-114)
While he was continuing the reading he encountered his name many times. But, it was not boring to read his name 7 times in 9 short paragraphs. Conversely, he felt pleasure when he participated in spelling his name:
When our computer spelled out the name
-M-R-. J-O-H-N S-M-I-T-H-
as an eligible entrant in our Sweepstakes, it also revealed some important information:
What? More information? This letter was like an adventure. Excitement after excitement… Good news, secrets to be discovered, awards followed by important revelations… He stopped spelling his name and wondered at the important information:
AS A MEMBER OF THE READER’S DIGEST FAMILY SINCE 1990 YOU’RE ENTITLED TO A SUBSTANTIAL DISCOUNT ON A NEW GIFT SUBSCRIPTION. YOU’LL ALSO RECEIVE OUR NEW 1991 DESK CALENDER AND THE HAMMOND ROAD ATLAS. Now, you can enter a Christmas Gift Subscription to Reader’s Digest for $9. 97 plus $2. 96 delivery. You save $10. 71 OFF the yearly cover price.
John felt honored for he was accepted as “a member of the Reader’s Digest family.” Even though he could not explain the position and importance of this paragraph in a letter bearing a “great” news, he was interested in it. Christmas was close and it would be a cheap but a credible gift for his friends. Since his mind was busy with multi-million dollars, 9 dollars appeared to be nil to him.
On the other hand, he was not aware of the fact that the letter promising multi-million dollars was calculating cents. It was separating the actual price in two parts with foxy fractions, so that the real price 13 dollars would be perceived by the reader as less than 10 dollars. The success of this tactic has been proven billions of times. John’s was the billion-plus-one case.
Not just once at Christmas–but once each month for a whole year–Reader’s Digest brightens the life of the person you send it to. It serves as a constant reminder of your thoughtfulness. What’s more, Reader’s Digest is the easiest gift in the world to give.
This was really true. As a matter of fact, he was conditioned to be positive towards this letter from the first two words, “great news.” Thus, the truth about the “constant reminder” easily drew the pink picture of his brightened friend thanking him every month, even every moment she read the magazine.
He continued reading… In the following paragraphs, the gift was wrapped and delivered for him, and a card was sent on his behalf, “sparing him the time, trouble and expense of sending a Christmas Card!” It was so simple and quick! He continued.
Why not take advantage of this unique gift opportunity right now. Just fill in your recipient’s name and address on Prize Entry Card ≠ 2. Then return both Cards today! SEND NO MONEY NOW. Don’t pay a cent until after Jan. 4, NEXT YEAR!
Although there were only two months to the Jan. 4, it was still next year. This was really a great deal. But what about the “great news?” What happened to it? For the first time he harbored some negative thoughts, but a big title with a calligraphic character turned him back to his normality:
Earlier, I promised to give you the secret of winning an extra $125,000.00 Bonus Prize. Here’s how to do it: Attached to the return envelope are two very important seals. Peel off the gold seal and carefully affix it to the red Sweepstakes Star (with your initials inside) found on Prize Entry Card ≠1.
That easy? How could such a simple task be called a secret? He followed the instructions carefully, although it was the simplest thing to do. After the “golden seal”, he had to peel off the “silver seal” and affix them to the appropriate place carefully. Like every one else, he did not wonder about the reason for this splendid description of the colors, or the importance of the peeling off the seals and sticking them somewhere else. While he performed his duty, somehow, he noticed some flashes of memories from his kindergarten years.
The last paragraphs of the letter were sandwiching the gift order suggestion with the other pair of the sweet cookies:
As a computer-selected entrant in our $10,250,000.00 Sweepstakes, you could win a big cash prize whether or not you order a subscription. But to ensure your complete eligibility in Stage 3– when 55,556 prizes are selected–return both Entry Cards by August 20.
What’s more, the sooner you reply, the more you could win. For each day the winning entry beats AUG. 20, I’ll add $10,000 -A-DAY to the Grand Prize–up to $100,000 EXTRA!
Sincerely, D. P. Barron, Director of Sweepstakes.
“You see, he is sincere, he does not require me to order a subscription to be eligible for the Sweepstakes.” said to himself. “But,” he continued, “What does the last part of the paragraph mean?” He could not understand whether he was required to order a gift subscription, or not. He thought about his friend, the gift and the Sweepstakes… And he filled both Entry Cards.
At the bottom of the letter there was a P.S. He could not ignore it.
P.S. (Did you discover the secret way to win an EXTRA BONUS PRIZE? If not, read this page again carefully.)
Even though he was an average American, he got offended from that footnote. Was it a deliberate insult, or was it just an innocent reminder? He decided to think positive. He sat down to incubate his hope for the letter that would tell him “Sit down before reading this letter…”
Writer: Edip Yuksel
Instructor’s Comments on “Sit Down Before Reading this Letter”
The Rhetorical Analysis Unit of 101 is challenging for both instructors and students, both because of the variety of texts—books, essays, movies, television shows, musical performances, plays even junk mail—that can be analyzed, and because of the skills such analysis calls upon, students need to be able to break a “whole” text into its constituent parts, to delineate those parts, and to evaluate its persuasive power.
Edip’s essay presents a fine example of such analytic skills coupled with imagination and a strong sense of his own audience. It’s easy to see that he’s very concerned with keeping his reader interested and amused while describing how junk mail works its magic on an audience (at least upon gullible Mr. John Smith).
Edip’s attention to detail—his line by line quotations from letter and fully developed responses to each new idea—show how a student can focus in on the text at hand and then expand on it through his or her own analysis and evaluations.
Edip’s essay shows us that rhetorical analysis doesn’t have to be dry and serious. By entering imaginatively into hopes and dreams of one member of a text’s audience, Edip reveals the effects of that directly (and keeps us laughing as he does so).
Instructor: Sheila Kineke
(A Student Guide to First Year Composition, 12th edition, Edited by Lori Snook, N. Erec Toso, Barbara Jensen. The University of Arizona. Tilly Warnock, Director of Composition; Rudolph C. Troike, Acting Head, Department of English; Burgess International Group, Inc., 1991; pp 69-76)
PS: Below is the Turkish-English/English-Turkish pocket dictionary that used to carry in my hand between 1989-1990.