Premiums – Marketing
A marketing ploy of the mid-forties, fifties and into the sixties frequently involved an idea that would tempt people to choose one product over another because of a ‘free’ offering. These gifts that were sometimes included in the packaging turned out to be highly successful marketing ploys that increased market share and brand loyalties. I remember when soap manufacturers added a dish, or a cup from a set of dishes, to a box of laundry detergent. Easily recognizable ‘Jewel Tea’ dishes were treasured back in our grandmothers’ home. While I’ve seen some in thrift stores and garage sales, I seldom see them being used as regular, daily use dinnerware. As for my family back in the day, some of our better dishes were obtained over time in boxes of oatmeal. Even our wash cloths and drinking glasses came this way.
Human nature being what it is, we loved to believe we were getting something for nothing. After all, we would have had to buy that box of soap anyway. In effect, the premiums were without additional cost to us. There was also that anticipation as we dug through the box looking to see what we got this time. We felt like winners when we finally laid our hands on the prize. This kind of thing has not gone away, but is still happening in advertising all around us. Who hasn’t watched late night TV and seen a miraculous new product being offered…wait a minute, ‘If you order right now we will double the offer.’ (‘Only pay a small shipping charge and the second one is yours.) We know that if we were to hold out a minute more we may also get a set of steak knives that never need sharpening and are guaranteed to cut through metal. Oh, my. It goes on and on. Frankly, some things I’ve seen have raised my interest, but overall, the products come with a risk they are not really worth the money even at half the price. Besides, I already have steak knives. It’s the steak that I don’t have, silly!
After leaving the service as a young man I took jobs working in retail. I established myself in management and ended up dealing with various marketing ideas. I learned to buy products at wholesale and place them on the shelves and racks at regular prices. It was common to mark up the goods by twice the cost to us. This gross profit covered our overhead that included utilities, the building, advertising, payroll, and finally future price reductions we would make to clear out left-over or seasonal items. There were times when I would travel to wholesalers or manufacturers and buy large lots of goods at their clearance prices. This would enable me to put them in stores at a greatly reduced price, thus passing savings to the customer and increasing our sales. What was not seen was that I was still making double the actual wholesale price. My profits soared when I promoted the price reductions.
When I was younger and growing up I knew by instinct that companies advertised the inclusion of prizes to popularize their product over the competition. It was common for cereal makers to include a toy or a premium in their box. We all surely remember that ‘Cracker Jacks’ was famous for their cute little plastic prizes at the bottom of their boxes. After a time they even marked which end of the box contained the toy. Some still do that, if not to attract new sales, then to keep up the tradition.
Others had kids accumulate a number of ‘box tops’ or lids to send in for a decoder ring, badge, or a secret membership card. Even today kids get excited over a toy inserted in their fast-food packages.
The biggest seller for boys in my day were baseball cards issued by Topps and other companies. Originally meant to be a premium to sell gum, tobacco, or whatever, the product was quickly tossed but the cards became collectable. Frankly, the gum wasn’t all that good, but the thrill of getting a ‘good’ player’s baseball card was worth the nickel or dime it cost. I bought packs of cards over a few years. I remember merchants keeping them close to the checkout counters in the stores around town. I remember once or twice when grocer Andy York out of kindness bought a whole box of cards and sold them to me at his cost. As I franticly rushed through those boxes the wrappers and gum was tossed. The prize had become more important than the product they were trying to market.
The new cards were sorted by team and added to my growing collection. I would sometimes trade with friends for cards I didn’t have that ultimately enhanced both our holdings, each now with cards we didn’t have before. If I still had them they would have a lot of value now. I had Babe Ruth cards, tobacco cards, and tons of Topps cards from the fifties. When I went into the service I never saw them again. I suppose they went to the dump between Town hill and Pine hill.
All these things were ‘free gifts’ in my mind. For the seller, it insured the customer would return to buy more. It must have been worth that little extra cost to them. If we think about it we would discover (again) that there’s no ‘free lunch.’ We paid a hidden price through giving our loyalty and perhaps by buying more than we needed.
In our case the family budget didn’t allow for a new set of dishes, but a box of detergent was necessary anyway. In those days most families were stuck with small, rigid budgets. Premiums were a godsend and they satisfied adults and children alike. I remember a family friend who didn’t collect premiums box-tops but knew that I did. They saved them up for me. This helped me on the way so I could send off for a ‘free gift.’ My ‘Sky King’ wings were won almost instantly!
Another popular thing that rose up out of this climate wasn’t meant to hold us to brands, but rather to particular stores and filling stations that handled the new premiums. I’m talking about trading stamps! These became a gigantic influence in how we bought nearly everything. While this program began in the 30’s, it didn’t get to our part of the woods until much later. When a small group of participating merchants started giving these out, they increased their sales and struck a blow to their competition. This forced other stores to jump in and issue trading stamps just to stay in the game.
Overall, while troublesome, it was another winning tactic. The customers had to collect pages of stamps and paste them into a book to redeem for prizes of all sorts. I recall that stamps were placed loosely into a box and later we as a family came together and did some ‘catch up’ pasting. I think they had a redemption store in Huntington, but also in several of the larger cities around.
I think it was Raleigh tobacco that put stamps into every carton of cigarettes to be collected for redemption at a future time. Like a few folks, I saved those for a while, but I never tried to redeem them. I never seemed to have enough to get anything worthwhile. If the general population was like that, a very small percentage of the redeemable products were ever issued to the collector. The bottom line is that the stores bought into the program and may have increased their overall business, but the stamp companies rolled in profit.
Marketing is sometimes a slight-of-hand action more than providing a generous gift. It isn’t necessarily evil, but simply a way to increase sales while reducing overhead. The net effect should be a profit for the seller and a benefit for the consumer. In the end, all of these were just marketing gimmicks. Every time we reacted and made a purchase, we reinforced their program.
Suzy, my wife reminded me of the story of Ben Franklin relating a story of bargaining for a wooden whistle he wanted. His advice was to bargain or wait for a clearance sale. One should ‘Never pay too much for their whistle.’ I try to remember that when trying to fulfill my needs or wishes. Back in the day folks used to say that ‘everything has an angle.’ They were right.
Maybe there’s a reader or two that still uses those Jewel Tea plates, or other premiums left over from days gone by. Some of you may still have some unused trading stamps in the corner of an attic, or have a magic decoder ring in a dresser drawer. How interesting it would be to rediscover some of those treasures long forgotten. This is one way to restore memories of another day. Best wishes as you look. firstname.lastname@example.org