Broken Dreams

Suit seeks millions from sweepstakes


©St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 1998

TAMPA -- If you want to enter the American Family Publishers sweepstakes without buying a magazine, you have to mail your own index card to a post office box in Waycross, Ga.

But no one is waiting for that post card in Waycross. Instead, it is routed back to Tampa, where it is processed with all the envelopes American Family provides paying customers.

The Waycross shuffle address is just one of the ways American Family misleads consumers into thinking they must buy a magazine to win a sweepstakes prize, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth alleged in a lawsuit Monday.

"This year they have gone entirely too far, and it has to be stopped," Butterworth declared. The suit seeks untold millions of dollars in fines.

The lawsuit names American Family, Time Customer Service and two celebrity spokesmen, Ed McMahon and Dick Clark.

American Family said the lawsuit was "without merit."

The suit was prompted in part by stories in the Times in recent months about people like Richard Lusk, 88, of California, who twice flew to Tampa thinking he had won millions.

But such "heartbroken" contestants are just "the tip of the iceberg," said Gary Betz, the assistant attorney general in charge of the state's suit.

Consumers have been confused and misled by American Family sweepstakes for years with full knowledge of the company, Betz said. "They know and they've known all the time," Betz said.

Employees at the company's Tampa office actually kept what one called a "Wall of Shame" plastered with letters and pictures of consumers who wrote in thinking they were winners, Betz said.

"In their zeal to sell magazines, American Family Publishers and its high-profile pitchmen have misled millions of consumers," said Butterworth. "They have clearly stepped over the line from advertising hype to unlawful deception."

The lawsuit seeks $10,000 for each violation and $15,000 for violations involving senior citizens or handicapped citizens. American Family mailings reach millions of homes in Florida. If found guilty, the company could be liable for each of those mailings.

Under both federal and state statutes, sweepstakes operators cannot require the purchase of any product to enter and win.

American Family Publishers defended its marketing and advertising practices in a prepared statement.

"Our mailings are not deceptive and are not written to be," said Lonni Miller, a company representative. "In fact the language used in our mailers is purposefully clear and is understood by those who read them.

"The mailers are not designed to entice entrants to travel to Tampa to deliver entries. Nor are they designed to defraud. They are designed to bring fun, excitement and a legitimate chance to win millions into mailboxes across America. It's unfortunate that their purpose has been lost on some."

Miller said American Family has awarded $77-million in "cash and other major prizes" over two decades.

Time Customer Service and American Family Publishers are both owned by media conglomerate Time Warner. Time Customer Service, which handles telemarketing and mail processing, referred questions to American Family.

McMahon declined to comment. A spokesman said Clark was vacationing and could not be reached for comment.

But Clark has blamed consumers for any confusion.

"I guess they probably need to read better," Clark said on a WFLZ-FM radio interview Monday morning.

The lawsuit alleges that the instructions, often written as personal letters from Clark and McMahon, walk consumers through a scheme designed to get them to buy products.

Among the solicitations cited in the lawsuit was one that told consumers: "IT'S DOWN TO A TWO-PERSON RACE FOR $11,000,000 -- YOU AND ONE OTHER PERSON IN FLORIDA WERE ISSUED THE WINNING NUMBER...WHOEVER RETURNS IT FIRST WINS IT ALL!"

The suit alleges that suggestion -- that the recipient is a member of a select group or one of two Florida winners- is false.

The lawsuit also alleges that the idea consumers must reply within a narrow time period also is false and misleading.

American Family Publishers also has been named in two class-action lawsuits filed in Tampa and Maryland in recent weeks.

Three Florida legislators have proposed bills aimed at regulating mailings of sweepstakes solicitations in Florida.
-- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

©Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.