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What Comes Around Goes Around (Odds Facts In The History of Promotions)

When defending Helen Keller from a charge of plagiarism, Mark Twain famously wrote, “substantially all ideas are second-hand.” While it’s possible to come up with a totally new promotion idea, many of our well-known techniques have much older origins.

The Billboard: Citizens of Pompeii apparently lived in whitewashed buildings that lacked any ground level windows. While this helped prevent burglaries and peeping Toms, it also created a very large naked space on the outside of the building. Owners then hired professional graffiti artists to paint advertisements for the hottest topics, such as gladiator games, real estate and politics. Archeologists have unearthed more than six thousand of these inscriptions.

The Money Back Guarantee: There exists a clay tablet sent some 3,800 years ago from a disgruntled customer from the city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. This man named Nanni sent it to his vendor Ea-nasir complaining about the grade of copper ore that had been delivered. This Old Bablylonian era missive brazenly reads, “What do you take me for, that you treat someone like me with such contempt?” and “It is now up to you to restore [my money] to me in full.” No word on whether Ea-nasir gave Nanni back his money (or who paid the postage on sending the rather large clay tablet.)

Public Voting: In 1977, the Soviet Union televised a singing contest with state-approved singers singing state-approved songs with public voting to pick the winners. However, because phones were a rare commodity in the USSR at that time and mail-in ballots did not provide the thrill of instant gratification, the public was asked to “vote” at the end of the show by turning on their house lights. The state energy company would then record the size of each power spike and report the results to the show. Apparently, fraudulent voting was not considered a viable option for the Soviet way of life.

The Tie Breaker: A collection of 13th Century Norse myths tells the story of Loki who challenged the king’s man, Logi, to an eating contest. A trough of meat was set before them, with each contestant on opposite sides of the table. The winner being the first to eat his way to the middle of the table. But the men met in the middle at the same time. Who wins? Of course the guy who not only ate all of the meat, but the bones and wooden plate as well.

The Coupon: Asa Candler, the owner of Coca-Cola, began distributing coupons (originating from the French, couper [to cut]), throughout Atlanta in 1887 for a complimentary free glass of the soda. The original coupon reads: “This card entitles you to one glass of free Coca-Cola at a fountain of any dispenser of genuine Coca-Cola.” Following Coke’s success, in 1909, C.W. Post began offering the first discount coupon for one-cent off its Grape Nuts breakfast cereal. No wonder both products have made it through two World Wars and the COVID epidemic.

If you know of any other interesting histories of promotion ideas, I’d love to know.

Please contact Robert Laplaca to answer any questions or provide additional information about this post.