Sunday, March 12, 2023

Should reader be honest in unsolicited mail request?

Is it OK to use a gift offered to you in a direct mail campaign to do something if you have no intention of ever doing that thing?

Organizations regularly will mail potential donors appeal letters with a small gift as an encouragement to donate or take some other action. A nonprofit organization might, for example, send customized address labels or an inexpensive tote bag along with a letter requesting a donation.

In the distant past, some organizations would include a nickel or quarter along with the solicitation, though a query from a reader we’re calling Danica suggests that such incentives may have jumped in value.

Last November, Danica purchased a new car. In late February, she received a letter from a research company asking her to go online and respond to a survey about the new car she had purchased. A $1 bill was enclosed with the solicitation as a show of gratitude for taking the time to complete the online survey. In addition, the letter also indicated that she would be entered into a sweepstakes with others who completed the survey to win $100,000. The letter made clear that the “online survey should be completed by the primary driver” of the new vehicle.

Danica had two questions she didn’t find answered by responses to the frequently asked questions printed on the back of the letter she received. Rather than use the email provided on the letter to ask her questions, she decided to ask me.

Danica’s first question was whether it would be OK if she used the $1 even if she had no intention of taking the online survey. Given there was no mechanism provided to return the $1 bill if she didn’t take the survey and that Danica hadn’t requested the solicitation, I see no reason Danica should feel any guilt about using that $1 regardless of whether she completed the survey. If the company only wanted to pay $1 to those completing the survey, the right thing would have been to send the money after a survey had been completed.

The same is true of other gifts offered as a token of appreciation regardless of whether the recipient did what the sender requested of them. Better, I believe, to use those tote bags than to add them to a landfill.

The second question is whether she as the primary driver is really obligated to be the one to fill out the survey. If she plans to complete the survey, the honest and right thing would be to honor that request. If there are specific questions about the vehicle or the driving experience and Danica wants to consult with others who also drive it, that’s fair game. But if she indicates on the survey that she is the primary driver, then that should be the truth.

Danica didn’t lie to receive the $1 bill. She also shouldn’t lie to be entered into the $100,000 sweepstakes by misrepresenting herself on the survey. Not lying is generally the right thing to do.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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