People have probably been giving stuff away to win others over, attract new business, or express appreciation for loyalty since back in the caveman days. Offer something small and fun to many, or something significant to a few and it can have more or less the same effect. The key is to understand what people want. You can’t just give away anything. Or you shouldn’t, at least.
10. McDonald’s Gave Away Razors with Breakfast
McDonald’s has famously had promotions and giveaways for decades now that have included everything from their famous Monopoly game to an endless supply of Happy Meal Toys. The ones they have these days were refined over the years, however, and built on learning from ideas like when they gave away razors.
In the ’70s and ’80s, McDonald’s thought customers would be stoked to have pancakes, sausage, and a disposable Gillette razor for breakfast. You can almost see where they were going – you eat breakfast in the morning, and you’ll need to shave in the morning. But on the other hand, it’s not really a thing that’s going to strike a chord with women, the idea of shaving stubble over your eggs is vaguely gross, and supplying people with a small, incredibly sharp tool because they bought a McMuffin seems odd, too.
There’s no evidence anyone misused a McDonald’s razor, but they did give them to kids if they were accompanied by an adult for some reason. And in the years since, finding a razor in the eggs has allegedly happened more than once at Mcdonald’s.
9. Oprah Gave Away Cars That Came With a Huge Tax Bill
One of the most famous giveaway mess-ups in history shows why an idea looks good on paper far more often than it does when it plays out in real life. Oprah Winfrey once gave everyone in her audience the most expensive free car in history.
This problem is uniquely American and it may not be something that would have happened, or at least not as bad, in any other country. The US government loves to tax people for pretty much anything, including luck. An American who wins the lottery can be taxed literally three different ways, including nearly 25% taken right off the top, then state and federal taxes later. Win the lottery in Canada, for instance, and you just get the money.
When Oprah gave everyone a car, those people became subject to taxes on the value of the car. So that free car cost everyone up to $7,000 a piece if they wanted to keep it. Imagine just showing up for a free taping of a talk show, you get a car, then a bill for $7,000.
276 people got that not-quite-free car. The total value was nearly $30,000, so no one is saying this wasn’t a good deal – $7,000 for a brand-new car is great. But the audience was specifically chosen to be people who needed a car. Meaning they hadn’t been able to afford one. Meaning they didn’t have a spare $7,000. It’s unclear how many audience members kept the car, but they were advised to sell it to cover the taxes and make a profit or turn the car down altogether to avoid the tax issue.
8. A Car Dealership in Missouri Gave AK-47 Vouchers with Truck Purchases
Speaking of cars, what’s a good way to get people to come down to a car lot to spend their hard-earned money? Having good prices is one way but, let’s be honest, most new car prices have very little wiggle room and the dealer on one side of town will charge about the same as the dealer on the other. So some come up with promotions to entice you. Like a free gun!
In Kansas City, Missouri, Max Motors came up with a summer promotion to sell their pickup trucks back in 2009. Anyone who came in to buy one got a voucher for an AK-47. You know, the incredibly well-known Soviet-era assault rifle? That’s the one.
Make no mistake, the owner of the dealership knew exactly what he was doing. He said the promotion had been a great success and had also angered liberals, which seemed to be the goal. On the upside, they were only giving out vouchers, so no one drove off firing a gun into the sky. They were responsible enough that any potential owner had to go to a gun shop, fill out paperwork, and get the weapon legally.
7. Cap’n Crunch Once Gave Away A Whistle That Could Hack Phone Lines
The ramifications of the Cap’n Crunch whistle giveaway with something no one in the world could have predicted because it’s really quite bizarre. The promotion dates back to the 1960s and was incredibly innocuous. Cap’n Crunch has a vaguely nautical theme with the Captain so they included a bosun’s whistle in boxes as a prize. It was a toy replica of the whistle a boatswain might use and, you know, it was just a whistle.
In what had to be a movie-level moment of inspiration, a former Air Force electronics technician named John Draper got one of the whistles and became a pioneer of early hacking.
Back in the day, different tones could unlock features over phone lines. The whistle played at a perfect 2600 hz which, when played into a payphone, gave access to long-distance service with no charge. Draper would go on to invent devices called “blue boxes” that played multiple tones for multiple effects and these would become some of the first products made by Apple after Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs met Draper when Wozniak was still in college.
6. Throwing Live Turkeys at a Crowd Was Once a Thanksgiving Promotion
If you’re not a fan of classic TV, you may never have seen the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. The show was about the crew of an AM radio station and one of the most famous episodes featured an extended joke about a Thanksgiving turkey drop. The event on the show only exists as reported by a staff member and it involves a helicopter dropping turkeys into a parking lot which becomes a scene of total horror and chaos.
It turns out the turkey drop was inspired by a real promotion from the 1950s in which a radio manager did a live turkey giveaway from the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot. Apparently, a crowd of people gathered and fought over the turkeys in such a chaotic manner that the event was never repeated.
Show creator Hugh Wilson has said that, when he heard of the story from the manager, there was an actual helicopter involved and the event took place in Texas. Regardless of the vehicle, someone who thought turkeys could fly was throwing them at a crowd and the results were ugly.
5. Coca-Cola’s MagiCan Promo Gave Away Cash But Also Rotten Smelling Water
Once upon a time, Coca-Cola had an idea. What if they could hide a prize right inside a can of Coke? You’d open it and cash came out? To do this, they had to make it convincing. The can had to feel like a normal can and that meant it needed to have liquid in it. But it also had to be something no one would drink.
Coca-Cola filled their cans with rancid-smelling chlorinated water so no one would drink it by accident, except for the kid who did. The MagiCan promotion quickly derailed. Some cans malfunctioned, so that winners got prizes soaked in rotten egg water. Others didn’t pop up so the prize never came out. And people who weren’t aware of the promo, because Coca-Cola literally never mentioned it on the can, drank what they assumed was the worst-tasting Coke of their lives.
4. Healthy Choice Pudding Had to Give a Man Over 1 Million Air Miles
Offering something of real value to customers who send in labels or UPCs is always a potential danger because, while most people may buy one or two of a product, there’s always someone who will try to get thousands out of you.
David Phillips got over a million Air Miles from Healthy Choice pudding by gaming their promotion. For every 10 barcodes a customer sent to Healthy Choice, a customer got 500 Air Miles. But if you did it in the first month that doubled to 1,000.
Healthy Choice is mostly known for frozen entrees and those probably cost around $5. But Phillips found Healthy Choice pudding for sale at a discount store for 25 cents per cup. He ended up hitting every store he could find in the chain and spent $3,000 on pudding. But that got him $150,000 worth of Air Miles.
Phillips got the Salvation Army to provide volunteers to peel the bar codes in exchange for a ton of free pudding. It also got him an $815 tax write-off as a charitable donation. Healthy Choice then sent him 1,280,000 Air Miles.
3. Acclaim Offered to Pay Speeding Tickets for Burnout 2 Customers
How do you promote a video game about driving really fast cars? If you’re Acclaim, you encourage people to drive really fast in their actual cars. To celebrate the release of their game Burnout 2 in the UK, Acclaim offered to pay the ticket of anyone caught speeding on the date of the game’s release. As you can imagine, the government was not amused.
The promo was called irresponsible and dangerous, while Acclaim said they were only encouraging people to get home quickly and speed less dangerously by playing the game in a safe environment.
2. Cleveland Gave Away 10 Cent Beer and Caused a Riot
Baseball and promos go hand in hand and there have been many nights where attendees get free hats, shirts, hot dogs, balls, whatever. In 1974, Cleveland offered fans something a little different – beers for 10 cents. What could go wrong?
Beer was normally 65 cents and while you could only buy six at a time, there was no limit to how many times you could go back. The crowd was soon full of very drunk people. Like, super drunk. The game had been interrupted by half-naked fans a couple of times before it ended and things got worse from there.
Metal chairs were thrown. People shot fireworks into the dugout and threw hot dogs at Texas players or spit on them. As the game neared its end, things got worse. Someone tried to steal the hat from a Texas outfielder and, thinking he was assaulted, the manager rushed to his aid with other bat-wielding team members. Fans rushed the field and Texas was ready for them with bats in hand. A melee broke out with thousands of drunken Cleveland fans rioting and fighting. Police had to be called in as stadium security, consisting of only 50 people, could do nothing. Eventually, tear gas was used, and the game was forfeited.
1. Hoover Destroyed Their Own Company with Free Flights
It’s hard to imagine a promotion bungled worse than Hoover’s free flight idea from the 1990s. Sales were slumping in the UK and a travel agency approached the nearly century-old vacuum company with an idea. Customers who spent £100 on Hoover products could get two round-trip tickets to anywhere in Europe.
To make the deal workable for their bottom line, Hoover put in a bunch of red tape to limit people from taking them up on the offer. Customers had to send in a receipt within 14 days. Then they’d get a form to register and send it back within another 14 days. Then they’d get a form to select potential departure dates, places, and destinations. And then, Hoover could reject those and propose others. Finally, the customer had to agree or get nothing.
The promo worked, however, and sales spiked. Then they decided to add flights to America for no good reason. US flights would cost Hoover £600, so the £100 purchase was not covering anything. Risk managers told them it was a terrible idea and not to do it. They did it anyway.
Hoover thought few people would take them up on the offer but many would buy more Hoover products than the £100—neither of those turned out to be true. There was a mad rush for cheap Hoover products and the company had to put manufacturing into overtime to keep up. But then people started claiming their free flights.
They faced potential losses of £100 million so the company scrambled to avoid fulfilling their promise. It denied applications, offered flights from airports that were hundreds of miles away, and tried to make people miss the deadlines. News broke that not a single free flight had been granted, and the backlash was brutal.
One customer blocked in a Hoover truck and held it captive for 13 days. Hoover scrambled, fired their UK president, blamed everyone and their uncle, and invested a fraction of what was owed in a “free flight fund.” It was too little, too late.
The parent company paid out $72 million and the European division was so broken it was sold to a competitor.