The Hilarious Scam Targeting My First Grader

Public school isn’t an efficient way to learn. But it’s a decent place to get socialized and prepare for the “real” world.

So it’s totally natural and good that my kid is already being scammed by authority figures in the first month. (Just like real life!)

If you’ve been following me on social, you know that a few weeks ago, my oldest started first grade.

And if you know me, you can imagine how much I enjoyed public school. (Hint: I did not.)

This means every interaction with the school is a battle with myself. “Keep it cool, don’t get combative, they’re just pawns in a broken system with an overinflated sense of self-importance.”

But then someone like THIS (see below) happens, and a sense of moral justice swells in me. It’s the opposite feeling of when Tucker Carlson sees a starving family get their pandemic unemployment benefits extended; same intensity, different moral alignment.

If you’re a 90s kid™, then you recognize the flyer below:

And if you’re not a 90s kid, let me tell you how so much of our modern feelings of inadequacy can be traced back to this flyer.

This flyer was a list of bogus prizes you could win if you sold items out of a catalog for a school fundraiser.

The prizes were almost ALWAYS garbage. And “winning” them required you to scam relatives, neighbors, and parents into buying different garbage. Here’s how it worked:

  1. You’d get a catalog showing your “prizes”
  2. You’d then get a second catalog of overpriced, hideous products you were tasked to sell.
  3. If you managed to sell any, you’d get your “prizes” in 6-8 weeks.
    • Didn’t sell any? Sorry, you still have to watch as all the other kids got their “cool” swag
    • Oh, you did your rich uncle buy a bunch of cheap chocolate and sad teddy bears? Cool, enjoy your off-brand tape player.

I’m honestly baffled this was legal.

Somehow, it’s still legal. And somehow, they found a way to make it more sketchy. Like, “I know this is definitely illegal in any country with decent privacy laws.

On Monday, my kid came home with a flyer. He was ECSTATIC about the “prizes” he could win if he turned in his “golden ticket”.

(Pro-tip: the only non-scammy golden ticket is for touring chocolate factories.)

Here’s what they want my kid to do:

  1. Register on their website and upload a photo of my kid (lol no)
  2. Enter the names, email addresses, and possibly phone numbers of 10-20 people
  3. Hope you don’t get banned from Thanksgiving for signing your uncle up for spam

BIG PRIVACY YIKES.

“Who am I giving my data to?” is a question I like to ask before filling out any form. So I looked up this company.

The company running this is Step It Up! Kids, whose name implies kids are somehow responsible for the lack of school funding.

“If those lazy first graders would lift themselves up by their bootstraps, then their teachers wouldn’t have to shop at Target’s back to school sale! When your teacher gets a concussion fighting off a parent over the last composition notebooks, it’s YOUR fault, kids!”

It’s like a libertarian’s dream.

On their website, they brag about generating over $150M in funds raised.

This means that if their cut is 30% – not unreasonable to believe – then they’ve made $45M as a company marshaling a tiny MLM army.

This seems like a wildly profitable scam that benefits the fundraising company way more than any individual school.

So that’s cool, a bunch of well-meaning parents are giving personal contacts to a scammy company run by people like Craig from Minnesota:

“Hey kids, they won’t charge YOU with a crime if you give me your parents’ credit card info.”

Or Greg from Southern California (glad they make a point to let you know he’s not one of those Northern California hippies):

“This space behind my eyes is where my soul used to be.”

And a bunch of other folks who are trying to cover up inner self-loathing with “fun” poses and colors.

“No I’m very happy with the choices I’ve made, ha ha why would you ask? You’re not from the IRS, are you? YOU HAVE TO TELL ME IF YOU’RE A COP.”

I mean, just… geeze. Bruce is like the patron saint of drinking yourself to sleep every night.

bruce-has-some-regrets.png

 

Here’s what the email they send out looks like (you know, the one in MY MINOR KID’S name?):

It’s all so, so incredibly manipulative.

It’s not just a privacy nightmare, it’s an ethical one, too:

You thought the email was bad? Check out this scammy, hard-sales, direct response trick to goad people into providing phone numbers EXPLICITLY for SMS spam (“WOW!”):

No, I do NOT prefer to receive unsolicited spam texts, thanks.

So not only are kids feeling FOMO over participating, parents are being manipulated into coughing up private data… which will undoubtedly be sold to other marketers. (There was no clear privacy policy on how the data would be used.)

But here’s the cool thing: I can figure out EXACTLY what the value of the prizes are and where to buy them online.

Take the mini fridge on the far right:

My kid was SO EXCITED about the idea of having a fridge in his room. He’s now daydreaming about solving a problem he didn’t have before people like Craig and Greg explained new ways his little life was incomplete.

But here’s the thing: I can buy this exact fridge from Amazon.

I also know it’s HILARIOUSLY tiny. The dimensions of this fridge are 7 inches by 10 inches by 10.5 inches, about the size of an iPad.

How would YOU feel if you’d spent weeks begging relatives for scraps, only to end up with a tiny fridge for babies?

I know I’d feel like a big, stupid idiot and never trust my teachers again.

But that raises a more relevant question, dear reader:

Why, as marketers, do we allow this crap? And how do we do better?

There are so many better ways to generate ongoing fundraising revenue and do ethical marketing. And these are lessons all of us can benefit from… whether we’re doing client work or launching our own products:

  • Stay focused on your goals. What is the school really trying to do? Pay for supplies. Upgrade a few computers. It would be easier and more ethical if parents could just pay a recurring gift, like Patreon for schools (startup idea right there). Or maybe just have a gift registry, a la “Amazon when you have a baby”.
  • Be transparent. Don’t lie about what you’re trying to do or hide it behind shiny, crappy prizes… just tell me how much you want and let me Venmo you
  • Don’t manipulate. These are our kids, for heaven’s sake. You don’t need to manipulate me into providing a good experience for them and others at school.

Oh, and don’t think you can hide soulless greed behind fund poses and bright colors. We see right through you, Craig and Greg.

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We occasionally write about conversion-focused design (including UX design and conversion copywriting).

Fill out this form to get all our newest, highly-profitable articles and training.