We’ve all done it whether we want to admit to or not. We’ve dug to the bottom of packed cereal boxes or popped the caps off countless Pepsi bottles. Or, if you were like me at 8 years old, maybe you monitored the street outside of your home for a roving camera crew holding balloons and a giant novelty check.
Sweepstakes have been driving consumers into a frenzy since they came into popularity in the 1950’s. Though they’d been around in one form or another for centuries, it really wasn’t until the golden age of advertising that they became the powerful tool of brand promotion that we know them as today.
During this era, company-sponsored contests were so popular that some people used them as a means to support their families! They would enter as many sweepstakes as possible, using the winnings (typically food and other products) to supplement their income. I once repeatedly (like, REPEATEDLY) entered a contest for a major candy producer to win a lifetime supply of candy, telling my parents that I could live off it while giving no regard to my dental future or a lifetime of eventual diabetes. Author Terry Ryan actually recanted her own family’s experience in her biographical memoir The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. (BTW- This was later turned into a movie starring two of my favorites – Laura Dern and Julianne Moore).
We understand why consumers engage with such fervor when it comes to sweepstakes – money, cars, maybe even 15 minutes of fame. But, why did companies start using them for marketing? Because they are profoundly powerful when it comes to promotion and word of mouth. Before our days of digital media, word of mouth was king.
Contests were a great way to drum up conversation over a product or company that wasn’t part of the daily discourse amongst friends or coworkers. Think of Mcdonald’s and its infamous Monopoly contest. Yes, McDonald’s was a brand staple for many American households in the 80s, 90’s and today. That said, it’s not like they came up in every day conversation. But that all changed with Monopoly. Even with exceptionally impossible odds, conversations turned to “If I win that $2 million…” or “all I need is Boardwalk, do you have it?” or “all of these fries are making me sick, but by god I am going to win that Dodge Viper”. In it’s initial 6-month run in 1987, McDonald’s witnessed the fruits of their labor as both sales and brand recognition jumped dramatically.
No purchase necessary?
Once when I was 10, I took it upon myself to get everyone in my family a magazine subscription. I’m sorry, but what teenage sister didn’t want a subscription to Tiger Beat in the 1980’s? And how could my brother not be into Compute! magazine when he was so good at playing Carmen San Diego on our Apple II? Anyway, I was ambitious and wanted a life of grandeur and thought I could dramatically improve my family’s odds of winning by ticking off the box to nearly every magazine subscription that Publisher’s Clearing House offered. It took my mom MONTHS to fix it, with one nearly un-cancellable subscription to Good Housekeeping lasting nearly a decade (um, you’re welcome Mom). In the end, it literally had zero impact on our chances. Thanks for nothing Ed McMahon.
Many sweepstakes were so popular in America that it didn’t even matter that a purchase wasn’t required in order to participate. However, that requirement wasn’t up to the companies nor the marketing brains behind the campaigns. It boils down to the fine line that exist between contests, sweepstakes, raffles, and lotteries and ALL of them are closely monitored by government agencies. For a sweepstake to be, well, a sweepstake and not a lottery, there must be no purchase made in order to enter or enhance the chance of winning. A lottery on the other hand, offers prizes directly based upon the money from entries and ticket sales, and is also much more tightly governed.
Then and now.
Sweepstakes in the 1950’s and 60’s had a much more creative element to them than many do today. In the earlier days of contests, many required a bit of participation from the entrant – such as writing contests or naming sweepstakes where individuals could actually name a product and win, I assume, a lifetime supply of that product. There’s even a certain Christmas movie where a child enters a writing contest for Ovaltine (gross) so he could win a rifle.
Today’s sweepstakes are no less prevalent but have become much more digitized. Digital marketing solutions have taken the classic sweepstakes campaign and put it on a dose of steroids. Likewise, social media has created much easier means for smaller companies to jump in on the sweepstakes game, and it’s paying off.
Unlike the days of writing and naming contests, today’s entries usually require no more than a fillable electronic form. Whether it’s providing your email or tagging 5 of your besties on Instagram, entering a contest and providing valuable marketing data on the backend is as easy as that. If you log onto any platform right now, I assure you that you’ll find at least one example asking you to reshare their post as means to enter, thus creating a mandatory word of mouth campaign for that company. Sneaky? Maybe. Efficient? Very much so.
Even McDonald’s Monopoly, the behemoth of sweepstakes, went digital in 2005. While I preferred the physical collection of game pieces (and the physical collection of fries), McD’s knew that a digital interface would provide them far more control over the game, but also heaps upon heaps of data about us. Understanding what we all do about data today, we know how useful that data would prove to be for future product and marketing enhancements.
I never win anything.
It’s a running joke that I never win anything. The odds could be as low as a game of “guess which hand” and I’d lose, but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming of a win and entering my name. Maybe it’s the allure of cash prizes and an early retirement, or maybe it’s just getting caught up in the frenzy of a good sweepstakes. Either way, sweepstakes remain common today, gifting even larger prizes in an increasingly impossible odds of winning. But, as Ed McMahon once said, “It could be you!”
(Also – If you’re interested in reading The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio, (it really is a great read) you can pick it up here )