You may already have won... nothing!
The one quasi-exception to this rule is in the category of potential prizes. If someone sends me what amounts to a free lottery ticket, I will usually take the time to check and see if I've won before recylcing the damned thing. This is silly, I realize, but we all have our little quirks. Recently, I found a mailing from a local used car dealer that offered a chance to win a 27" Flatscreen T.V., an iPod shuffle,* or $10,000** in cash- and then there was the Grand Prize! They didn't specify what the Grand Prize was, but it sure sounded cool. And... grand. All I had to do was scratch off a square, and compare it to a number printed inside. I did so and, lo and behold, I won!
Now, on realizing this you might think that my first reaction would be, "Hot damn!" This was not, however, what happened. My first reaction was instead, "Okay, what's the trick?" You see, I've spent enough time monkeying with statistics, and explaining stats to others, that I have a very real understanding of just how unlikely I am to win a 27" t.v. from a car dealership for merely checking my mail. As a result, I went in search of the elusive fine print. As you might guess, this print answered my questions, and read as follows:
Odds of winning Prize I (valued at $380), or Prize II (valued at $100) are 1:250,000. Odds of winning Prize II are 1:250,000. Odds of winning Grand Prize (Retail value $400) are 1:249,997.
So, to do the math, there's one chance in a quarter-million of winning each of the first three prizes, and two hundred and forty-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-seven chances in a quarter million of winning the Grand Prize. In other words, since 1+1+1+249,997=250,000 it's impossible not to win something from this little game. This, of course, leads me to think that the statement "Retail value $400" in regards to the Grand Prize is overstating things slightly. Or, at the very least, is used in the same way by those commercials on t.v. for food dehydrators that explain that you're getting a $60 value for only $19.95.***
So, instead of a game, we really have a crass tactic to bring people in to claim their "prize" bolted onto a game. I guess there's nothing really wrong with it, it may give some folks a lift, but it strikes me as doing harm to our sense of fairness. I wonder how many people go in to claim their prize, feeling special and fortunate, only to discover that they have been duped. Instead of a t.v., an iPod, cash, or something even more Grand they will be receiving a high-pressure sales pitch and, in all likelihood, a sheaf of coupons that will save you $400 if you use them all.
And that makes me think of the Defense Department's program, America Supports You. This program is pitched as a way to provide organized support to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where they are essentially in harm's way. As such, it appears to be a noble effort with good intentions. When you dig deeper, however, as NPR has, you discover another truth. The ASY program is less about supporting the troops, than it is about drumming up political support among U.S. voters for the President.
Why do I say that? Well, try this: one of ASY's programs has involved giving Americans a chance to send a text message of support to U.S. soldiers from their cellphones. This opportunity has been advertised at sporting events among other places. Sounds good, right? Well sure, except for one little detail- none of the messages have ever actually been sent to the troops. Instead, they are stored on a harddrive and never seen again. Rather than demonstrating support to the troops and providing them with encouragement, these messages are little more than a ploy by the Pentagon to gauge public opinion, and a means through which to make the average American feel closer to the troops. That's all well and good, but I really think that the soldiers putting their lives at risk deserve a little better.
Still, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by all this- the manager of this program is Pentagon PR Czar Allison Barber, who was caught on camera coaching soldiers on what questions they would ask the President during one of his visits to Iraq. If she and her PR department are willing to tell our troops what to say- to literally put words in their mouths- then perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the actions of America Supports You. Certainly, troops in the field have always been coached somewhat and probably will always be coached somewhat, but there's still a point beyond with public relations becomes propaganda.
A program like America Supports You that promises to support the troops, but then fails to actually do so, is worse than useless. It doesn't just waste effort and leave our fighting men and women without encouragement, it betrays us all. How much worse off will our soldiers be as a result of this? How many more people will become too jaded by this to do anything to let the troops know we care?
Whether you support the war or not, many, many men and women are putting their lives at risk and doing their duty. If you want to support them, there are countless ways. Instead of wasting your time on America Supports You, maybe try helping out with the USO.
They may not be perfect, but at least we know they mean what they say.
* i.e. those things our students sometimes try to listen to in class.
** i.e. dissertation funding.