Issue #44 – Wednesday [DATE] 2019
Posted by Denny Hatch
A Sales Pitch That Started with a Delicious Short Story
NOTE: Don't try to read the tiny type on this envelope. I have retyped it for easier reading below. This is the start of the short story.
Above is the 6” x 9” outside envelope that I received many years ago.
The offer was for Predictions, a financial newsletter published out of Boca Raton, Florida. I’m a bit hazy on who the publisher was—either Lee Euler or Joel Nadel.
I received this mailing only once—or maybe twice—so it could not have been a huge success. But, in the words of Arizona direct marketer and Harley-Davidson aficionado “Rocket Ray” Jutkins
There are no failures; only lessons.
Besides, for sheer fun, this effort ranks as a dandy short story… as well as a misbegotten sales letter.
Here is the teaser copy on the envelope above:
THE 100% GUARANTEE
a short story by
John B. Palmer
The letter that started it all arrived in Joel Adler’s mailbox on a cold Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas. It was an ordinary-looking blue envelope, no return address, sandwiched between a copy of Time and a handwritten letter from Joel’s son Tim, a college senior, undoubtedly asking for money.
Joel sorted quickly through the mail, found nothing that riveted his attention, and turned back to the morning paper. “QB Hurt: 49ers Super Bowl Hopes Plunge,” screamed the banner headline on the sports page. “I’ll have to remember that for the football pool,” Joel thought.
Perhaps it was the Super Bowl reminder that caused Joel’s glance to shift to the little blue envelope... for it was then that he noticed the line printed discretely on the envelope just to the left of his name:
“SUPER BOWL WINNER: 100% GUARANTEED. $1.”
Now intrigued, Joel ripped open the envelope. Inside he found only a very short letter, which, in its entirety, read as follows:
The winner of next month’s Super Bowl game is known to me. For the sum of one American dollar in cash, I will reveal the name to you. If the team I name does not win, your dollar will be returned within 72 hours and you will never hear from me again. —Balthazar Balash
Well, as you can imagine, Joel was hooked. “What’s this guy’s gimmick,” he wondered. “He can’t be making any money at a dollar a clip.” Joel extracted his wallet, removed a wrinkled one-dollar bill, inserted in the reply envelope and tossed it in the outgoing mail basket.
Shortly after New Year’s, another little blue envelope arrived at the Adler household. The letter inside read as follows:
Letter continued from the envelope front in typewriter (Courier) font:
The winner of the Super Bowl game will be the San Francisco 49ers. —Balthazar Balash
Of course Joel didn’t believe a word of it. But the office betting pool was a small one. And even when he pocketed his winnings, following San Francisco's dramatic upset victory, he hardly thought about the little blue envelope.
A few weeks later, the next blue envelope arrived.
The winner of next month’s election for Prime Minister of France is known to me. For the sum of five American dollars in cash, I will reveal the name to you. If the candidate I name does not win, your five dollars will be returned within 72 hours and you will never hear from me again. —Balthazar Balash
Joel had little interest in French politics, but he was sufficiently intrigued to risk five dollars to see what would happen.
What happened was what the newspapers called “Stunning Upset in French Vote.”
“Boy,” thought Joel to himself, “I could have made a bundle betting on that one. Wonder what’s next.”
Next came a blue envelope guaranteeing the winner of a basketball playoff game — for $10. Joel made a few side bets at the office, and then made a pleasant profit when the prediction came true.
After the fourth prediction — for $25 — the surprise winner of a big mayor’s election — Joel was baffled, confused, and even more intrigued. He felt the need to talk things over with his old friend Jay Sampson.
“Jay, as a commodity broker, you’re in the prediction business yourself. What do you make of all this?”
The broker puffed on his pipe thoughtfully. “Look, Joel, you know as well as I that no one can see into the future. It’s just a gimmick of some kind.”
“Maybe so,” Joel replied, “But you’ve got to admit that four upsets in a row is pretty darn good.”
“Or pretty lucky. I’d like to see this Balash character try to predict something in my racket.”
“Then take a look at this,” said Joel, tossing a blue envelope onto the broker’s desk.
“Fascinating,” said Jay. “For a mere fifty bucks, he will tell you whether the price of gold will be higher or lower on June first than on May first. Are you inclined to take the risk?”
“Well, uh, I already have. Here’s his answer.” The familiar blue sheet had only one word on it: “Higher.” Joel smiled sheepishly. “I, uh, thought I might sell that mutual fund on May first and, well, buy some gold.”
The June 1 closing fix on gold in London was $22.50 higher than the May 1 close.
And the next four predictions, which cost the new partnership of Adler and Sampson $100, $250, $500, and $1,000 respectively, were equally surprising and equally correct. The two men, who had made quite a bit of money in investments and side bets, were utterly mystified.
“Look,” said Jay at one of their weekly lunches that fall, “I know I said I didn’t believe in magic. “But, well look — this Balash has made nine correct predictions in a row, and at least seven of them were big surprises. The odds against that are astronomical.”
Joel readily agreed. “Unexplainable things do happen all the time. I don’t know if it’s what they call a miracle or what. I just know that I’m darn well convinced.”
“I’ve got to admit that I am too,” said the broker. “In fact, I can hardly wait for prediction number ten.”
“Then have a look at this,” said Joel. “It came in the morning mail.” The blue sheet read as follows:
On September 27, there is a fight for the WBC heavyweight championship of the world. The winner is known to me. I will sell you that name for the sum of one million American dollars in cash. If the fighter I name does not win, I will refund your one million dollars within 72 hours.
The two men looked at each other long and hard. Then, as one, they whipped out their pens and started calculating. “If I re-mortgage the house...” “I’ve had an offer on that land in Hawaii.” “I can put together a syndicate —- I know Gustafson and Whitman would go for it...”
And so it went. Within a week, the syndicate had been formed. One million dollars to buy the name of the winner, and four million more to place the bets discreetly at Las Vegas and London bookmaking parlors.
The huge sum of cash was transmitted, and two weeks before the fight, the blue envelope came.
The syndicate gathered in Jay’s office to open it. Joel was the first to speak.
“It’s Walker,” he shouted. “Walker —- the four-to-one underdog. That means sixteen million dollars, gentlemen. Sixteen million dollars!”
The money was never returned.
Final Report: The Balthazar Balash Case
Investigative Unit, Los Angeles Police Department
Based on records found in the apartment abandoned by Balash the day after two parcels containing $1 million cash each were sent to his Post Office box, the method used was as follows:
Initially, Balash sent out enough sales letters to produce at least 1,024 responses. Half of these customers (512) got a letter predicting that San Francisco would win the Super bowl. The other 512 got a letter predicting that Cincinnati would win. When San Francisco won, he used the money sent in by the 512 winners to make refunds to the 512 losers.
Next, for the French election, he sent one candidate’s name to 256 of his remaining customers and the other name to the other 256. Again, he paid off the losers with the money sent by the winners.
Now he had only 256 customers left. 128 got the name of one basketball team, 128, the other. For the mayor’s election, 64 people were sent each name. For the gold prediction, 32 people were told “higher” and 32 were told “lower.”
And so it went, right down the very last prediction, when he had only two customers left. Each of these customers had been given, by the luck of the draw, nine correct predictions. They were well and truly hooked. Of course they didn’t know that there had originally been 1,022 other clients.
One customer (an Arab oil sheikh) was given one fighter’s name for a million dollars, and the Adler syndicate was given the other fighter’s name for another million. The Arab presumably is quite happy now, and so, we may assume, is Balthazar Balash, who disappeared with two million dollars in cash, and can almost certainly never be traced.
In the business of predicting the future, some people may be quite good indeed —- but there’s no such thing as a 100% guarantee.
Anyone investing in the advice of predictors is hereby advised to act cautiously.
Dear Fellow Investor,
Now that I have your attention, I would like to recommend that you very cautiously make a modest investment in the services of some of the best investment predictors in the world today.
There is a new, inexpensive but extremely powerful investment advisory service called, simply, PREDICTIONS: SPECIFIC INVESTMENT FORECASTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE WORLD’S TOP FINANCIAL EXPERTS.
Blah.... blah.... blah...
Takeaways to Consider
• When I received first received this letter, started reading the envelope and wondered where this thing was going.
• I got intrigued by the story all the way up to the end and the salutation, "Dear Fellow Investor," and the two paragraphs that followed.
• I remember being simply delighted at finding such a nifty piece of prose in my mailbox. I put the letter down to think, for a moment, about the two guys who had bet the ranch and wondered whether I would have fallen for the same ruse. (I wouldn’t have.)
• The point is, I put the letter down!
• “As a sometime angler, I remembered a fishing trip to Maine when we used dry flies with barbless hooks. Unless you kept up the tension all the way to the net, you lost the trout. Try it. You should feel the same sort of tension when you write and when you read a letter. If not... reel in the slack.” —Freelancer Malcolm Decker
• I urge you to always remember Mal Decker's barbless hook when you are creating an email or a direct mail letter.
• If your prose suddenly goes slack and it is laid aside, chances are good it's dead.
• If your prose suddenly goes slack and it is laid aside, chances are good it's dead.
• A letter or email is an interruption to the normal daily routine—just like a baby crying, a dog barking, a phone call or the doorbell ringing. An interruption of that interruption is usually fatal to the sale. Chances are the mailing will be left on the table unread and then gathered up with the sports pages and tossed in the recycling bin.
• Or—if an email—Delete will be clicked.
• My opinion: The Balthazar Balash letter is wonderfully written. A hoot. But, clearly, the overpowering message left with the reader is that you are going to get screwed over by anyone who claims to be able to predict the future.
• So, while The 100% Guarantee is a spectacular piece of prose, it negates the entire concept of the product being sold. It is cute; it is clever. But it ultimately craps on concept of spending money with someone who says he can predict the future.
• Compare this letter to Bruce Ritter’s fundraiser for Covenant House that tells the story of the three kids showing up at his front door. It was a dandy short story—far shorter than the Balthazar tale—and Ritter was able to make an easy, logical segue into guilt and why you should give money to Covenant House.
• Not a single benefit to the reader is expressed anywhere in this 1,447-word short story about the Balthazar Balash scam.
• It’s creepy.
• “Your job is to sell, not to entertain.” —Jack Maxson, freelancer whose elegant prose put Brookstone’s Hard-to-Find Tools catalog on the map.
Word count: 2,125
You Are Invited to Join the Discussion!
At age 15, Denny Hatch—as a lowly apprentice—wrote his first news release for a Connecticut summer theater. To his astonishment it ran verbatim in The Middletown Press. He was instantly hooked on writing. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army (1958-60), Denny had nine jobs in his first 12 years in business. He was fired from five of them and went on to save two businesses and start three others. One of his businesses—WHO’S MAILING WHAT! newsletter and archive service founded in 1984—revolutionized the science of how to measure the success of competitors’ direct mail. In the past 55 years he has been a book club director, magazine publisher, advertising copywriter/designer, editor, journalist and marketing consultant. He is the author of four published novels and seven books on business and marketing.
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