OFF THE CUFF: April 3, 2015

Do you remember the first time you saw an ad for “Great Courses,” the (then) audio-taped direct-mail company that let you attend the “exciting, scholarly, amazing” lectures of Dr. So & So, …

Published April 5, 2015 6:45 PM
3 min read

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CUFF-thDo you remember the first time you saw an ad for “Great Courses,” the (then) audio-taped direct-mail company that let you attend the “exciting, scholarly, amazing” lectures of Dr. So & So, …

By Allen Clark      

                          
CuffDo you remember the first time you saw an ad for “Great Courses,” the (then) audio-taped direct-mail company that let you attend the “exciting, scholarly, amazing” lectures of Dr. So & So, Professor of Ancient History or Music Appreciation or Fine Arts from a top (or not always so top) university… “right in your own living room?”

I do. And what I see these days is a lot different from back then.

The company was founded 25 years ago, not by a marketing-savvy professor but by a former chief counsel of the United States Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Originally, you would have found a modest ad in a fairly scholarly magazine offering you insights into cultural icons or compositions or great literature. What a change!

These days, week after week, there seems to be a locked position on the back cover of the New York Times Book Review – a full-page ad. Chances are that ad may well run them $50,000 per insertion. But what amazes me is the democratization that’s happened. Now, the course is “Money Management Skills” or “The Art of Travel Photography” or “Influence: Mastering Life’s Most Powerful Skill.” There are courses on yoga, nutrition, Mediterranean cooking, and “How Jesus Became God.”

How many titles are there? There are 536 listed on-line. Take wine – including sets coupling wine and food, there are close to 30 different choices. California, Italy, France: here, there, anywhere.

How about the brain? There are over 100 choices, ranging from the intelligent brain to the addictive brain to the sleep-deprived brain. One wonders when they will come out with dedicated courses on Cleaning Windows, Caring for Jack Russell Terriers, and Clutter, Begone.

Most striking to me is the discount offered in every ad. Invariably, the featured course, which lists at $249.90 (CDs), can be yours for just $44.90 – a savings of over $200. I took a random selection from a recent catalog and realized that if I moved quickly, I could save almost $3,700 on 16 choice courses. If I wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records, I could buy all 536 listed titles and save almost $124,000.

That led me to call headquarters to see if there weren’t something misleading with continuously advertising what looked to me to be phony list prices. Apparently, others have questioned this practice, because the well-spoken and well-prepared woman I talked to didn’t skip a beat. She patiently explained that all courses were in fact available at full price for a portion of the year. And, yes, sometimes customers need a certain title immediately and actually pay full fare.

It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that these guys are on to a pretty neat idea. Once you’ve made the master tape, each subsequent CD, when produced in quantity, probably only costs a buck or two, in the mail. Where the list price comes from, I have no idea. The bottom line is that Great Courses’ customers seem well satisfied (I assume they bought low). And if they are like Jerry Breault of Pleasant Hill, Calif., there’s lots more information to be sold. Jerry says he’s “the proud owner of 41 Great Courses.” Each one adds to his “understanding and enjoyment of life.”

I bet he can’t wait to get the special double-course set, “Secrets of Mental Math” paired with “The Everyday Guide to Wine.” Just $364.90, unless he can wait a bit for the 75 percent-off sale.

 

 

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