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Why marketers are losers in the world of competitions

Could the Challenges on Vocal+ herald a return to the glory days of slogan competitions that made people think?

By Jon McKnightPublished 3 years ago 11 min read
Top Story - March 2021

Vocal founder Jeremy Frommer’s celebratory story about growing the creative community to more than 20,000 Vocal+ members made much of the Challenges that have helped motivate them to keep writing, as well as attracting sponsors to pick up the tab for ever-more-lucrative prizes.

It also set me thinking about how the marketing world is missing a trick - or, rather, forgotten an old one.

Back in the Eighties, and for at least a century before that, companies that wanted to increase their sales or brand awareness would run competitions that fired the imagination of consumers and offered tempting prizes ranging from cash and cars to holidays and homes.

It would have been difficult to cross the Atlantic on the QE2 or Concorde in those days without finding almost all of your fellow passengers had won their tickets in a competition on a baked beans tin - and if you were travelling on the famed Venice-Simplon Orient Express and were unexpectedly gathered into the restaurant car for a denouement, it was less a case of “whodunnit” than who won it.

TV programmes delighted in featuring people who were so successful at entering consumer competitions that they’d not only won just about everything in their home, but had actually won the house itself.

Magazines and newspapers loved competitions, too, as they knew it would boost their circulation even if people only bought extra copies so they could enter.

Those competitions took many forms, from draws to estimations to spotting-the-ball or spot-the-difference, but the contests that worked the best for promoters and gave them the most valuable long-term return-on-investment, or ROI, were slogan competitions.

We were asked to say why Brand X was the best, in 12 words or fewer, and our answers had to be apt and original.

It seemed a simple requirement, but the marketers and psychologists behind the brands had an ulterior but perfectly acceptable commercial motive.

By asking us to say why their brand was the best, we actually had to think about it - and that’s not as easy as it sounds.

For most of the good points about the brand had already been expressed publicly by its marketing, advertising and PR people - after all, that’s why they’re paid so well - which made it that much harder to come up with something new.

Yet masses of people - sometimes literally millions - would buy products they might not otherwise have even considered, purely so they would qualify to enter a competition.

Then they would wrack their brains, trying to thinking of something complimentary but convincing to say about the brand, before trying to shoehorn that thought into 12 words or sometimes even fewer.

It might be that only one of those million people would win the house or the car or the ride on the Orient Express, but the other 999,999 of them had not only bought the product, producing a huge leap in sales for a minimal investment, but were also thinking - and thinking hard - about the virtues of the brand and its products.

In a cult or a mainstream religion, that would be called indoctrination, yet millions of people in the UK alone were willing to devote evening after evening to indoctrinating themselves by thinking about nothing other than why their kitten, if they even had one, preferred Brand X’s cat food to anyone else’s.

So while only one of that million won the prize, the company that promoted it - Brand X - won a million times over, because it had caused a million people to think, at length, about its own virtues and plus-points.

The maths (or math, if you’re reading this in the USA - a singular difference between the two versions of our common language) worked out very well for the brands, too.

To the individual consumer who won a £20,000 car, that was a life-changing amount of money in the Eighties, yet the promoter had almost certainly obtained the prize car at a huge discount or, more likely, free of charge because the promotional material for the competition would always praise the prize to the skies, making the exercise more than worthwhile for the sponsor who forked out for the car.

And the promoter, of course, had sold at least a million more units, often far more, which made the value of the prize look like peanuts in comparison, however thrilled the recipient was.

The promoter could also look forward to free and very positive PR in the prizewinner’s local newspaper and on regional TV stations, as everyone liked to see that somebody down the road had won a supercar.

But there was a downside for the promoter.

Competitions that attracted hundreds of thousands or even millions of entries, usually by post, needed to be judged.

That meant using a handling-house equipped to receive sack after sack of entries every day and had staff who would open the envelopes, check if the coupon or label had been included, then sift through all the entries to disqualify those who failed to include their name and address, ignored the rules, or whose writing was too illegible to be eligible.

There were no computers to help in those days, so it was a labour-intensive task. Someone had to look at each acceptable entry and decide whether to shortlist it so that the judging panel were only presented with a reasonable number of slogans to pontificate upon.

Great minds think alike, so some of the best wordsmiths out there inadvertently knocked each other out of the contest by submitting brilliant but identical slogans, meaning each was no longer considered to be original under the rules.

Just as there‘s a perfect headline for every news story, and any good sub-editor presented with the same set of facts is likely to come up with the same wonderful headline, that coincidence of thought has cost many a clever consumer a Jaguar, a Concorde flight or a Winnebago.

Which is why, occasionally, an incredibly dull or prosaic slogan would be announced as the winner of a competition. It might not have been clever, or catchy, but it was the last man standing when its smarter rivals knocked each other out simultaneously.

Hassle or not, it was still worth the brands’ while to promote competitions, especially as the handling-houses did all the hard work on their behalf and simply presented them with the contact details of the winners.

Apart from the mass enthusiasm and indoctrination that good competitions engendered for the brands, it also gave birth to a little-studied sub-culture: that of the obsessive competition entrant, or comper.

They would spend most of their waking hours combing supermarkets for promotional leaflets, collecting labels, buying the products they needed to enter, dreaming up slogans, squeezing the words into the often impossibly-small spaces on the entry forms, addressing envelopes, then making late-night trips to the main Post Office to ensure the entries arrived by the deadline.

It could easily take over a life. I know, because it happened to me.

That’s why I came to be in an all-night gas station at 2.30 in the morning, buying 96 cans of cat food despite not owning a cat or having any plans to.

And why, as the most timid and awkward of involuntary celibates at the time, I had to buy 30 packets of condoms at a drug-store counter, followed by 40 packets of Tampax for a need I certainly didn’t have.

If you’re remotely interested in just how badly Competition Fever can take over a life, I documented it in A Prize To Die For, the only novel ever set in the world of comping, but I digress.

Read it if you dare! Download it now for Amazon Kindle.

As a comper who knows how to string a few words together, I began to do reasonably well, winning three microwave ovens, a fridge, an early satellite dish, a hi-fi, one of the first 50 CD players in the UK, various cash sums and, most notably, an Audi car that I sold for almost my entire year’s salary.

Then it happened.

The marketing industry decided to shoot my golden goose, as well as itself, in the foot.

Someone, some guru no doubt, convinced the marketing world that it was far too much effort to run slogan competitions, what with having to pay for handling houses and judging.

No. All they had to do instead was to run the competitions as draws, with the winner being the first out of the hat.

Even better, do it by e-mail, so all you have to do is pick one lucky winner at random from all the entries in your Inbox.

That advice prevailed, and slogan competitions dropped out of fashion, almost overnight.

Instead, consumers are invited to enter their details on an online form, which takes seconds, and the administration costs to the promoter are virtually nil.

The promoter will also be able to harvest the data of the 99.99% of entrants who are unsuccessful, enabling them to be junk-mailed til Kingdom Come - and that data has a great value to the marketing world, with consumers mostly unaware of how much the information they give so readily and innocently is actually worth.

A win-win for the promoters and the world of marketing, surely - but didn’t I claim they’re missing a trick?

Here’s why: take the case of just one consumer who wants to win a car in a contest promoted by Brand X.

In the Eighties, in the glory days of consumer competitions, he might have had to switch from his usual brand to Brand X, buy 10 extra cans of cat food, and spend perhaps an entire week thinking about why that cat food is better than its rivals.

By having to concentrate on the product’s virtues, he was convincing himself of them (I speak here from experience) and may have ended up liking the brand so much that he remained loyal to it for decades afterwards.

So Brand X not only gets a predictable and welcome sales boost, but has gained a customer who’s switched from a rival brand and may remain loyal for many years, whether or not he won the car on offer.

Multiply that by millions, and the benefits of running slogan competitions are obvious even to those of us who are neither psychologists nor economists.

Now compare that to the modern way. The same person wanting to win a car clicks on a link to a website, fills in his e-mail address, then gets on with his life.

His engagement, if you can even call it that, may only last a few seconds. He probably has no idea which brand is behind the contest, he’ll not have bothered to read much if anything about the prize, and he cdertainly hasn’t spent any time at all indoctrinating himself as to the virtues of either.

Yes, it’s saved the promoter a lot of effort and expense, but at what cost?

Many of today’s brand consultants and promoters may not even have been born in the Eighties, so can’t be blamed, but the first ones to turn the clock back and opt for good old-fashioned postal slogan competitions will wonder why they’d never thought of it before.

The competitions almost promoted themselves, for free, and there was a healthy support industry for compers with magazines and websites pointing them at the latest contents with the best prizes.

The magazines have all but vanished, as few want to subscribe if there are only a handful of slogan competitions a year with unattractive prizes, but all of that would spring up again if the marketing world woke up and smelled the opportunities.

Jeremy Frommer, whether he realises it or not, is part of that vanguard. By running Challenges through Vocal+ and encouraging sponsors to pick up the cost of the prizes (which are amazing for us as creatives, but modest for them in marketing terms), he is encouraging proper competitions for people who like to pit their wits against others’ for a lucrative reward.

If he’d asked us instead to merely stick our e-mail addresses into a web-form with a cash prize for whoever’s drawn out of the hat, he might have had a lot of entries but it would have resulted in almost zero engagement.

Instead, he’s encouraged countless people to sign up for a service he needs to grow, and they’ve all had to think about it, quite intensely, as well as what they’re writing about.

It will involve effort on Vocal+’s part, as writing competitions need to be judged, and that’s time-consuming, but Jeremy will be rewarded with a growing legion of loyal creators who, as in my case, may never have even heard of the platform before but only found it because of a very attractive prize advertised on Facebook.

Like me, those new legions are here because they love a challenge, with or without a capital C, and realised that their chances of winning such a valuable prize was down to their own ingenuity, not some algorithm that might or might not have chosen their name from an electronic hat.

If that Facebook ad had asked me to simnply give my e-mail details, I’d never have clicked on it and would never have gone on to discover Vocal+, a platform I hope to support and feel part of for many years to come.

You may not realise it, Jeremy, but you might well have started a revolution.


About the Creator

Jon McKnight

I have left Vocal.

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