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Hot on the Web

The Internet as reward

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 9, 2007
(Issue 2510, Outsmarting the Scammers)

The use of online promotions is hardly a new phenomenon anymore, but it remains an interesting observation that online services and destinations are increasingly featured as prizes in various contests.

A few years ago, Pepsi made a splash when offering free iTunes downloads on the inside of pint bottles. (Thank you, Pepsi, for my copy of Sammy Davis' Jr. "Theme From Shaft." Really.)

As this is written, Hershey is running a promotion in which you can get codes from the inside of chocolate bar wrappers and type them in on to redeem them for various Hershey-themed prizes. (Frankly, I don't wear branded clothing anymore – Hershey wants to advertise on my person, they should be paying me. I can't see paying for the privilege of advertising someone else's product.) Pillows, t-shirts, coffee mugs - all available for various numbers of wrappers.

Transforming the mail-in order

At the risk of dating myself, when I was a kid you could collect bubble gum wrappers to redeem for various prizes. As I recall, it took a couple hundred to get a piggy bank or a secret ring decoder.

And then there was the wait. People over a certain age know well the meaning of the phrase "Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery."

So you'd spend weeks or months collecting enough wrappers, mail them off after spending hours poring over the available prizes listed on the wrappers (in very fuzzy renderings), and then wait for the package to arrive.

Breakfast cereals were also famous for these promotions – helped guarantee that you'd be buying (or begging your parents to buy) nothing but Choco-nuts or whatever brand you needed box tops from in order to get the "free" x-ray vision glasses. (See, people of a certain age – okay, my age if you must know – also well know the phrase "shipping and handling extra." We practically memorized those offer forms on gum wrappers and cereal boxes.)

Today's savvy young consumers don't have the patience for such things as sending in a form and wrappers and waiting around for them to arrive. Fifty years have seen a steady deterioration in the American attention span; we've gone from Saturday morning cartoons whittling our attention span to a half-hour to the Cartoon Network cutting that by about half to the Mondo Web site cutting it even more.

While the Hershey's offer would still require you to wait for Hershey to ship you the goodies, you do at least get the instant satisfaction of seeing a full-color photo of your premium prize and knowing that it's on the way.

And the above-mentioned Pepsi contest offered even more instant gratification: You simply went to iTunes, typed in your code from your bottle cap, and downloaded your song. It's hard to imagine someone with such a short attention span that that couldn't hold it!


But the Pepsi example remains the anomaly. Music can be delivered digitally, and I suppose computer games, clip art or even e-books could be as well.

Beyond that, though, most premiums exist in the physical world. Short of Star Trek replicators hooked up to our printer ports, we're not going to be getting a t-shirt, a book or food via the Internet anytime soon.

Still, the fact that more and more promotions are tied to Web sites shows how far market penetration of the 'Net has come.

More than likely, it also shows how marketing types see the 'Net as a cost-effective way to create more "touches" with consumers and likely consumers.

Many times, in order to redeem your prize, you have to provide a valid e-mail address. Not so different, I suppose, from giving the cereal manufacturers your mailing address. Only I don't recall ever getting cereal coupons or newsletters after redeeming a prize.

When I redeemed my Pepsi points a couple years ago for some iTunes songs, I had to set up a Yahoo account in order to do so. To this day, I still get periodic e-mail newsletters from Pepsi based on the info I had to provide in order to get Sammy singing "Shaft."

So Internet promotions aren't going away. The 'Net is truly ubiquitous, as normal and as indispensible as having a telephone or a TV.

Only some 15 years after being opened up to the public, the Internet is ingrained in our economy and our lives.