FL Sues American Family Publishers, Spokesmen Over $11 Million Sweepstakes

Florida v. American Family Publishers

The State of Florida filed a lawsuit this month against American Family Publishers (AFP) for allegedly trying to trick people into believing that they have won $11 million. State of Florida et al. v. American Family Publishers et al., No. 98-00-778 (FL Cir. Ct., 13th Judicial Dist., Hillsborough Cnty., complaint filed Feb. 2, 1998).

AFP celebrity spokesmen Dick Clark and Ed McMahon were also named to the suit for taking part in an "unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous" tactic to sell magazine subscriptions. Time Customer Service Inc. (TCS), which processes the sweepstakes entries and magazine orders for AFP, also was named as a defendant. The state is seeking joint and several liability, according to Special Counsel Gary L. Betz of the Department of Legal Affairs in Tampa, FL.

The company's sales pitch has caused dozens of elderly people to travel to Tampa, the return address listed on the entry, to collect a multi-million dollar prize they in fact had not won, the lawsuit says.

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

In a statement, AFP said its mailings were not designed to entice people to travel to Tampa. "Our mailings are not deceptive and are not written to be," the statement said. "In fact, the language used in our mailers is purposefully clear and is understood by those who read them."

AFP is one of the largest sweepstakes operators in the magazine subscription business. According to the lawsuit, the company sends out sweepstakes entries that appear to be definite winners. Recipients are not required to purchase a subscription to enter the sweepstakes, but if they do, they may enter using a pre-addressed envelope that goes directly to Tampa.

Recipients who do not buy a subscription enter the sweepstakes by addressing their own envelope to an AFP center in Georgia.

AFP's $11,000,000 "sweepstakes scheme is deceptive and unfair because it constitutes a sophisticated and subtle promotional ruse," the lawsuit alleges. "The effect of which is to sell magazines and other products by leading recipients to think they either have winning numbers and thus must order magazines to collect their prize, or that they will enhance their chance of beating out an alternate winner by ordering magazines."

The lawsuit also alleges that TCS receives multiple weekly inquiries and complaints concerning magazine subscriptions that were duplicated and extended into future years automatically by the company.

Each of the millions of sweepstakes entries the company mails to Floridians could be a potential $15,000 violation, the lawsuit says. In addition to these civil penalties, the lawsuit seeks a court order banning the company from using the marketing device. Florida is the first state to file charges of deceptive advertising against the Newark, NJ-based sweepstakes publisher and its spokesmen. (Call 800-345-1101 to request the 17-page complaint.)