Monday, August 15, 2011

The Worst Promotions Ever

Thought for the day:  Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.   Carl Sagan

When I was in the bank the other day, I couldn't help but notice a sign hanging on the wall. It read We have one very powerful business rule. It is concentrated in one word: courtesy. Henry Wells, 1864

Yes, courtesy is important, but as I waited in line, it occurred to me that there are a couple other C words I'd really like to see from today's businesses. How about some competence and decent customer service?

After all, insincere smiles and tepid I'm sorrys only go so far.

I mean, is it too much to ask that the person waiting on you in any business actually knows a little something about the product he wants you to purchase? Is it too much to expect a real person to answer the phone when you call for assistance? A real person who actually knows how to provide that assistance? It'd also be nice if all the people within a company were on the same page, too, so no matter which of them speaks to you, you're going to get the same exact response every time.

Yeah, I know, pipe dreams.

Alas, I realize businesses are essentially in business to make money. As much as they can, with as little effort as possible. Such rarely seen things as competence and customer service must cost too darned much money, I suppose. Silly me.

On the other hand, businesses DO sometimes use promotional campaigns to reach out to their customers. Carl Sagan said imagination can carry us to worlds that never were? Some companies had imagination out the wazoo when they came up with some of their promotional campaigns. And it definitely took them somewhere. Mostly down.

 I gleaned the following information from an article, Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing, by Evan V. Symon.  (And please forgive me for laughing at the misfortunes of these businesses. I know it isn't very courteous of me.)

As a proud sponsor of the 1984 Olympics, McDonald's ran a special promo, "If the U.S. wins, you win!" Each customer received a scratch-off ticket with an Olympic event printed on it, and if the U.S. won a medal in that event, the customer would win a Big Mac, fries, or Coke, depending on which medal was won. Do you remember the 1984 Olympics? They were held in Los Angeles, and both Russia and East Germany boycotted the games that year. Without the historically tough competitors from those countries participating, the U.S. won a total of 174 medals that year ... including an eye-popping 83 gold medals. Um, that translated to a LOT of  Big Macs. FREE Big Macs. Many, many, MANY more than the company ever anticipated.

In 1986, a discount store named Silo had a glut of stereos on their shelves, so they offered them at a discounted price to get them out the door. Great idea, right? The trouble is, they tried to be hip in their ad. Surely, when they offered those stereos for 299 bananas, everyone would KNOW they meant dollars, right? Right. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn't, but what happened is customers crowded the stores the first (and only) day of the sale with 299 actual bananas in hand. Silo may have gotten a bunch of stereos out the door, but they allegedly lost over $10,000 in that one day. Needless to say, they pulled the ad before they could get buried under another day's mountain of bananas. Kinda made a monkey out of that store, wouldn't you say?

Tesco and Asda are competing supermarkets in Britain, and earlier this year, Tesco launched a promotion wherein if Asda beat their prices, they would pay the customer twice the difference. It appears the company overestimated their bargain prices, and underestimated the willingness of their customers to extend themselves to save a buck. Savvy customers scoured the two stores for price differentials, shared the information via the Internet and many customers raked in mucho moola, and essentially, free products, to boot. But only for so long. The store now has a twenty pound cap on payments.

In the early '90s, Hoover ran a promo that was up, up and away, the worst promotional ever for a business. They offered two free airline tickets to Europe or the U.S. with the purchase of a vacuum cleaner. Someone within the company evidently thought this would be a good way to sell some of the high end models. After all, people would be getting free tickets. Wouldn't they feel justified in splurging on a better vacuum? Ah, in a word, no. People bought the cheapest models. Lots of 'em. The company lost 500 million pounds in this fiasco.

This is your Captain speaking ...
In 1967, San Franciso-based Pacific Airlines was losing money, due in part to extensive media coverage of a recent crash. In a nutshell, customers were extremely nervous about flying with them. So they got desperate. And arguably, stupid. They hired comic Stan Freberg to head up their promotions and to get the company back on the right track, money-wise. He started by taking out a full-page ad. It read Hey there! You with the sweat in your palms. It's about time an airline faced up to something. Most people are scared witless of flying. Deep down inside, every time that big plane lifts off the runway, you wonder if this is it, right? You want to know something, fella? So does the pilot, deep down inside. Oh, that was just gr-r-reat, right? Sure to build up confidence in the nervous. But he wasn't done there. Oh no. In a continuance of his attempt to mock people out of their fear of flying, he had flight attendants hand out survival kits, which included a lucky rabbit's foot, and a security blanket. And at the end of each flight, the flight attendant would go to the intercom and announce, "We made it! How about that!" Not surprising, sales actually went DOWN, Freberg was fired, and the company went down, too. It sold, and later became Air West.

Last November, Walker's Potato Chips, a UK company, came up with a promotional campaign that turned out to be all wet. Once a customer bought one of their bags of chips for 40 pence (~65 cents) he could go online for two (count 'em, TWO!) chances to win ten pounds (~$16) by successfully predicting when and where it would rain. The problem? You may have heard a rumor before ... something about how often it rains in England? Especially in the fall, which is when this ill-fated campaign got under way. Statistics showed a better than one in three chance of rain on any given day, and it didn't take the company long to discover they were shelling out approximately ten pounds in prize money for every three pounds of chips sold. Not exactly stellar numbers. Without warning or fanfare, the site mysteriously went down during a particularly rainy week, when they were set to lose more than a million pounds. And that was the end of THAT promotion.

And THIS is the end of this post.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.


  1. Oh, my gosh! Idiocy knows no bounds. Lucky for us it's so funny. ;)

  2. Those are some pretty big marketing fiascos! I wonder how many advertising executives lost their jobs on these promotions!

  3. Simply baffling! Something we writers should take into consideration. Hopefully we will be smarter than these guys. Sheesh.

  4. I remember that McDonald's promotion. Bwahahaha! The potato chip one is funny [sad] too. These are great Susan. Where do you find this stuff? heehee

  5. Hi, Ladies. As always, thank you for your comments.

    Linda- Yup. It feels kinda good to laugh at stupidity, especially when we're not the ones who pulled the "stupid trick."

    Dianne- A lot of 'em!

    Danielle- Yeah, it'd be like us saying, "Buy my book, and I'll give you any other book of your choice absolutely FREE!"

    Y'all take care. Happy Monday.

  6. I remember Stan Freberg; he was a very funny man. His sarcasm was clever, however, per the Pacific Air ad, satire is not always appropriate. Being a white knuckle person when flying, I find nothing to laugh about when talking about safety in an airplane. I would imagine that Stan didn't earn any frequent flyer miles for his efforts.

  7. Hi, Skippy. I hope you scored some Big Macs with that promotion. Where do I find this stuff? Let's just say I read waaaaaay too much.

    Hi, Starting Over. Yeah, I think you're right. I think he LOST frequent flyer miles on that one, especially when the company had to sell.

  8. Interesting stuff! This reminds me of the Kentucky Fried Chicken promotion that Oprah mentioned and then the stores were inundated with customers wanting their free chicken. I saw an absolutely horrible billboard this summer for Red Robin: A big photo of a juicy hamburger with the words. "We put the hair on your tomato." HUH???

  9. Hi, Karen. Now, that is too weird. Just what we want, huh? Hairy tomatoes.

  10. If all else fails, I'll take courteous and mildly competent over rude any day of the week.

  11. Very clever as always! I can't believe all of those people actually showed up with bananas! Julie

  12. I really enjoyed this one.
    Banks courteous? Something along the lines of, "Oh dear I'm frightfully sorry, I seem to have left my dagger sticking out of your back"

  13. Hi, Florida. I can usually "charm" a person out of being rude, but there isn't a whole lot I can do about incompetence.

    Hi, Amanda. Thank you, ma'am.

    Hi, Julie. Kinda makes me wonder about that old song "Yes, We Have No Bananas." (Were they REALLY talking about bananas??

    Hi, Al. Good. I'm glad you did. And you've got that right. Dealing with some banks can be discouraging, at best.

  14. Hi Susan,

    First of all, thanks for commenting on my blog. I really do have one really smart dog and one really simple dog. And he really does get treats for breathing. We've tried training him, and we got as far as potty training, which is great, but his mind goes a mile a minute and he can't stop long enough to think. And speaking of thinking...I was at a store last week. My purchase was $10.06...I told the sales girl "oh here, I have the 6 cents." She said, "I'm sorry, I already rung it up." My cousin said, "what's the difference." I said, "the difference is she can't make change if the machine doesn't tell her how much! It's true, they can't make change now a days. And for once, I'd like to get a real person when I call for help. Wouldn't you?

    Cindy Bee

  15. Just re-read that last post. Really!

    Cindy Bee

  16. head is spinning! Great post!

  17. Hi, Natasha. Thank you, ma'am. And thank you so much for stopping by.

    Hi, Cindy. My pleasure. Yeah, it's amazing how many cashiers would be tee-totally lost if their electronic cash register stops working. (They're so dependent on PDAs, they don't know how to use a p-a-d and pencil!) Take care.

    Hi, Jilda. Thanks, and thanks for stopping by, dear lady. I always enjoy reading your posts.