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Column: UC Berkeley ‘very concerned’ about its own dubious marketing scheme

UC Berkeley books
These books from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health were made available as part of a direct-mail survey. Some recipients didn’t realize they were being charged almost $100.
(Bernard Schweitzer)

Bernard Schweitzer recently received a package of four health-related books from “University of California Berkeley White Papers,” along with a bill for $99.60.

There were just a few things wrong.

Schweitzer, 86, a West Los Angeles resident, says he never intentionally ordered any such materials.

He has no ties to UC Berkeley. Schweitzer went to Caltech and received a PhD in engineering from UCLA.

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The return address for the white papers wasn’t UC Berkeley but a post-office box in Palm Coast, Fla.

And the fine print of the invoice said that by making a payment, Schweitzer would be automatically signed up to receive more such books at an additional cost.

“It seems like someone is trying to make a lot of money here,” he told me.

I did some digging. While the books are indeed from UC Berkeley, the campus’ School of Public Health hired a New York marketing company to gin up new business.

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That company, Remedy Health Media, in turn hired a Florida company, Palm Coast Data, to handle order processing and fulfillment. Remedy also launched a direct-mail campaign employing what can only be seen as dubious sales tactics.

Even UC Berkeley is displeased.

“This has not turned out to be a particularly good marketing program,” acknowledged Dale Anne Ogar, publications coordinator for the School of Public Health’s wellness products.

“We are very concerned about this marketing package,” she told me. “It is being reformulated.”

If there’s a takeaway to all this, it’s that direct marketers frequently employ questionable tactics to get people to cough up some money.

These tactics often involve focusing on seniors, who may not recall if they actually ordered something or may feel obligated to pay any legitimate-looking bill that arrives in the mail.

I pointed this out to Ogar, noting that while the wellness books UC Berkeley sends out may have value — and they do — the sales techniques being employed frankly stink.

“We are doing everything we can to change this,” she responded. “You’re catching us in the middle of that process.”

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Remedy Health Media says on its website that its mission “is to empower patients and caregivers with information and applications to efficiently navigate the healthcare landscape.”

What it actually does is operate health-related websites and newsletters on behalf of clients, such as Spine Universe for people with back and neck problems, and EndocrineWeb for people with diabetes and thyroid conditions.

It has a long-standing relationship with UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health to provide access to the school’s studies and reports. In 2013, Remedy announced the creation of BerkeleyWellness.com, an “online health resource providing trustworthy wellness information to consumers.”

Ogar said the books Remedy markets on the university’s behalf provide funding for the campus’ graduate students, which is a good thing.

But she acknowledged receiving “dozens” of complaints from people who had no idea they were ordering the books.

The direct-mail solicitation sent by Remedy to people deemed by the company to be good sales prospects (mostly seniors, Ogar admitted) is confusing at best, deliberately misleading at worst.

The cover letter, with UC Berkeley’s name and seal featured prominently, says the recipient is among “a select group of Americans” being asked “for their insight regarding vital healthcare issues.”

What follows is a “confidential survey” requesting personal information such as gender and marital status, and asking whether “an ad or commercial ever influenced you to inquire about a prescription medication,” and whether “you ever signed up for a discount drug card.”

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This is all just a set-up for the closer, the “FREE White Papers Preview Selection.”

“After completing your Survey, you are entitled to select as many as FOUR of the White Papers listed below for a no-risk 30-Day FREE preview,” it says.

By my count, the word “free,” all in capital letters, appears no fewer than six times over the course of the four-page cover letter and survey.

Recipients can choose from a variety of conditions they’d like to learn more about, including arthritis, heart disease, depression, diabetes and prostate trouble.

You won’t discover unless you read the accompanying fine print that each book-length white paper will cost $19.95, plus $4.95 shipping and handling, plus sales tax, if unreturned within 30 days.

In this way, the “confidential survey” is little more than a sales pitch that goes out of its way to hide its true intent.

I asked Ogar what happens if someone doesn’t pay the hundred dollars.

“The invoices get more and more aggressive,” she said, although Remedy and its contractor, Palm Court Data, will throw in the towel after eight or so attempts to collect the cash.

“We don’t ever send this to debt collectors,” Ogar insisted.

Well, that’s something.

In Schweitzer’s case, he received books on vision disorders, arthritis, back pain and memory troubles.

He said he vaguely recalled filling out the survey but at no time believed he was ordering $100 worth of reading material.

“I wouldn’t have done that,” Schweitzer said.

The situation isn’t helped by how difficult it can be to contact someone in authority at Remedy. The company’s switchboard instructs you to press 0 for the operator, but doing so (as I did, twice) resulted in a recorded message saying, “Message quota exceeded. Goodbye.”

I finally managed to connect with Michael Cunnion, Remedy’s chief executive, who wasn’t pleased that a reporter was asking questions about an important client.

“We work very hard to create the very best editorial products with the highest editorial standards,” he said in a brief phone interview.

In a subsequent email, Cunnion said that “we don’t like complaints, yet complaints do happen. It is our job to be responsive. We are constantly learning and adjusting, and we are doing that currently.”

He declined to comment on how many copies of the survey were mailed out.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, “federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.”

“If you receive merchandise that you didn’t order, you have a legal right to keep it as a free gift,” the FTC says.

It also warns about deceptive sales tactics known as “dark patterns” when entering a sweepstakes or ordering supposedly “free” products.

“Read all the fine print to determine if you are joining a ‘club,’ with regular purchasing or notification obligations,” the agency says.

Remember Columbia House? That’s the notorious (now bankrupt) mail-order company that suckered people into contracts for high-priced records with a promise of a dozen albums for a penny.

That’s what the FTC means about a “club,” and that’s basically the playbook Remedy is following to lock people into future sales, although it says you can cancel at any time.

I believe Ogar when she says UC Berkeley is distressed by the marketing tactics employed here. Cunnion, the Remedy CEO, said that in no way was his company trying to deceive people.

The reality, however, is that direct-mail campaigns often use every trick in the book — official-looking letters, misleading language, implied threats — to grab people’s attention and steer them toward a desired outcome.

Marketers will tell you that if they don’t adopt such strategies, their message will be ignored or tossed directly in the recycling bin.

My answer to that (and to my alma mater, UC Berkeley) is that if you have to bamboozle people into buying a product, that’s not a product anyone should want.

Oh, and it’s against the law in California to engage in “untrue or misleading” advertising.

Even with the best of intentions.


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