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OPINION | Curtis Varnell: Companies once gave promotional products away, now we advertise for them

by Curtis Varnell The Timepiece | September 10, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

Cars whiz in and out of the new super-station, paying up to $4 per gallon to pump their choice of fuel. Patrons line up in front of the 12 pumps, feeding in credit cards and selecting which color nozzle will dispense the gas. None of them look too happy in the 100 degree heat and most leave the place without ever speaking to another living soul.

The world sure changes with just a few added trips around the sun.

Being raised in the days of Andy Griffith, I can identify with Gomer and Goober running out of the station to check oil, water and to offer my father a fill-up. The employee, dressed in uniform, would wash the windows and then offer you a promotional gift if you bought 10 more gallons of fuel.

Gulf, Esso, Dino and all the popular chains used to strive for business by offering all sorts of freebies.

Personally, the lunar module kit showing the lunar lander the Eagle was my favorite. Younger kids liked going to the station that offered an animal that they could add to the Noah's Ark kit. The driver could get the ark for a minimal price and then, with each $10 purchase, received one of Noah's animals to add to the collection.

During the 1930s, a service station in Pennsylvania offered a free airplane ride with any $15 purchase. That seems like a real bargain today but at 21 cents a gallon, that would require about a half dozen fill ups on hard-to-get Depression-era money.

Service stations and grocery stores gave away S&H green stamps. Fill up the books with stamps and customers could trade them in for a wide range of gifts or money.

I collected a pocket full once while working as a sacker at the local grocery store and, being a young smart-aleck, placed them in the offering plate at church. The pastor must have had a wife who collected them, since the next week he thanked his benefactor from the pulpit.

A sacker in a grocery store? That brings up another subject to be discussed more fully at another time.

Some of the best promotions gave away glass dishware. Quaker Oats was our family favorite.

Beginning in the 1920s, Quaker Oats began placing a cup or a saucer of carnival glass in each box of cereal. It was brilliant advertising. Customers would purchase only that name brand to receive the next essential addition to their collection.

My grandmother would open the box, pour the oatmeal out and eagerly search for the glass within. Additional large pieces could be obtained by turning in box tops or labels. Some families' finest set of dinnerware, kept in the pantry and for special use, came from those boxes.

Duz detergent and others soon followed suit, which led to collections of red, yellow or green dishware as valuable collectors' items today.

Promotional products encouraged buying every item imaginable. A&W Root Beer would supply a small glass of their product free to everyone under six with an adult purchase. Buy a float and you could keep the beautiful, heavy mug advertising their product. Those mugs now sell for a nice, fancy price.

Presidential campaign buttons from every presidential race were placed in cereal boxes. As an avid collector, I now have a set of every one of those buttons running back to the 1896 campaign. Some of those buttons cost much more than an entire case of the original product.

Toys, small books, Disney characters, ashtrays and coasters were stashed in products across America. If that wasn't enough, buy a 25 pound sack of flour or a 50 pound sack of hog feed and you received a yard of gingham cloth. Many students went to school with dresses or shirts provided gratis for buying life's essentials.

Returning home from pumping my own gas, Zachary asks me for $50 to buy a new hoodie with some kind of funny swatch across the front. "Son," I stated emphatically, "you can get that same hoodie for $12 down the road."

He looked at me like I am crazy, "It doesn't have that logo Dad!"

Now instead of getting a promotion, we pay for the privilege of doing a company's advertising for them! Sometimes I feel like I have either sat out too long in the sun or experienced a few too many trips around it.


Print Headline: Many great collectors items resulted from promotions now no longer available


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