A Promotion That Really ‘Sucked’

By Mark Preiser

Hoover_MarketingThere are good promotions and bad promotions – but it took Hoover vacuum’s European arm to come up with what many regard as the worst promotion of all time. The promotion was so ill-conceived that Maytag, Hoover’s parent at the time, actually had to sell the company. I had heard about it before, but found the details in a 2011 article by Evan V. Symon, titled “The 5 Biggest Disasters in the History of Marketing Ideas.”

In the 1990’s, Hoover had the bright idea of offering in the U.K. two round-trip airline tickets to Europe or the U.S. with the purchase of a vacuum. Back then, Hoover’s upper-level vacuums were a bit pricey. The thinking was that the two free airline tickets would encourage customers to move up to those pricey models.

What actually happened? People who didn’t even need a vacuum were buying them…sometimes many of them. Why? The minimum cost of the vacuum to qualify for the promotion was 100 pounds. The minimum price of two round-trip flights was considerably higher. So every time someone bought a vacuum and collected the tickets, it cost Hoover a lot of money. Now I’m guessing it doesn’t take a Paul Samuelson or even a second rate economist to understand that this was not a good plan.

Before I reveal the results, I want to share another promotional disaster highlighted in that article. The perpetrator was the Silo retail chain, which found itself overstocked with stereos. Their crack team decided to get a bit edgy in their ad by offering the stereos at a discount price of “299 bananas.”

The term “bananas” as a synonym for dollars hadn’t been popular for decades; so naturally the joke was lost on most who saw the ad. But that didn’t stop dozens of people from marching into the store with 299 actual bananas – retail value at the time: about $40. The chain had to honor the offer. What did they do with the bananas? Since food banks don’t take perishable items, hopefully there was a zoo nearby.

Now back to our big winner….er, loser of the day: Hoover wound up losing 50 million pounds in what many people believe to be the world’s worst promotion. (One British pound fluctuated somewhere between $1.15 to $1.30 for most of the 1990’s, so you can do the math.) It was so bad that claims for the tickets were never fully settled until years later – and, as mentioned, Maytag had no choice but to sell the company. Perhaps Hoover’s then-“braintrust” had difficulty grasping the concept that it is not good practice to give away value higher then the cost of what one is selling.

As in all cases, one hopes some good did come out of this promotion. I’m guessing it prompted a bit of unusual tipping from frequent fliers: “Great haircut, Sam. I’d like you to have this Hoover….”