A short history of competitions
Ever wondered when the first prize promotion took place, or what prizes were up for grabs in the olden days? Compers News dates back to 1913, so we asked its editor, Steve Middleton, to look through the magazine's unrivalled archive and share the UK's rich history of competitions and prize draws.
It’s surprisingly difficult to produce a definitive timeline of prize promotions. Changing tastes, fashions, laws, technology, the economy and plenty more besides have all combined to create a gradual evolution and you could go back almost 500 years to find a starting point.
Lotteries were the earliest forerunners of the consumer promotions, with the first English state lottery being held in 1569. Merchants copied the idea and used similar schemes to promote their wares, and this practice continued unregulated until 1721 when private lotteries were outlawed. State and local authority lotteries – usually held to raise revenue for a specific event or purpose – would continue for another hundred years, until the Lotteries Act 1823 outlawed all lotteries from October 1826. They would remain illegal until legislation in the mid-70s, when local authorities and charities were permitted to run them with strict prize limits and legal controls. Designing a prize promotion in such a way as to stop it falling under the definition of an illegal lottery was a major challenge for promoters, and led to UK promotional marketing being very different to the USA and Europe, for example, where the luck of the draw was not outlawed in the same way.
Depending on your definition of a consumer competition, the first one to ever appear in the UK is thought to have been in Family Friend in 1850. The earliest British competitions all appeared in newspapers and magazines, and this continued for many years – while over in America commercial companies slowly began to use competitions to sell their products, with Procter and Gamble running the first major US contest in 1872.
From the late 19th century, a huge number of competitions – often with massive, life-changing prizes – appeared in nearly all of the major newspapers and magazines of the time. In 1883, Tit-bits magazine gave away a large house in London named, appropriately, Tit-bits Villa. And in 1889, Answers magazine offered £1 a week for life to the reader who could best guess how much gold and silver was held at the Bank of England. The promotion was billed as ‘The Most Gigantic Competition The World Has Ever Seen’, and it led to over 700,000 entries and a ten-fold increase in the magazine’s weekly circulation.
The UK’s first product-linked competition was probably a newspaper advertisement in December 1898, with a house as the main prize in exchange for soap wrappers. The floodgates began to open, and in the early years of the 20th century new competitions came thick and fast. That ever-present lottery legislation meant that every competition had to include a skill element, and picture puzzles, word games, estimation tasks and orders-of-merit were very much the fashion.
In October 1912, John Bull magazine launched its famous ‘Bullets’ word game, which would be much copied and run for almost fifty years offering some enormous prizes along the way. The decision to discontinue the game in August 1959 followed a surge in popularity of a different kind of competition. It wasn’t exactly new, back in 1913 the Daily Mirror had printed a full-page advertisement for Wolff’s pencils offering cash awards in return for a brief opinion of Wolff’s products – an early example of a slogan contest.
And in 1931, entry coupons inside packs of Kensitas cigarettes offered a car every day for 185 days. Entrants were asked to write a 20-word statement describing the merits of the product, with the statement having to be written two words at a time across ten separate coupons. Although most competitions still had an initial task, the ‘complete in twelve words or less’ style slogan became the preferred tiebreaker format for most UK competitions from the mid-1950s.
After two world wars and the austerity of the 1930s, the mid 1950s onwards was a golden age for comping. The country’s biggest companies battled for customers with some huge prize funds. Kellogg’s, Heinz and the soap powder companies were among the biggest players with contests promoted on special packs and in-store entry forms as well as in newspaper and magazine advertisements.
Magazines such as Reveille and Tit-bits (the Take a Break and Chat of their day) sold in their millions, and ran regular columns offering advice on the competitions advertised in their pages. Competitors Journal launched in 1913, and selling over 100,000 copies a week in the 1950s – specialised in reproducing entry forms for all the major on-pack and newspaper promotions together in one publication and one issue alone saw Heinz giving away 57 cars, and Hoover and Osram a new house each.
Win a house
Houses were regular prizes, and cars and lengthy holidays (no such thing as short breaks in those days) would often be given away by the dozen in major competitions – which would invariably be judged by a panel headed by a popular celebrity of the day, and the winners proudly announced in a blaze of publicity. Sometimes a competition would really capture the public’s imagination – once Gillette took over a stretch of a south coast beach in the summer of 1967 for their ‘Big Dig’ competition, burying over 1,000 prizes ranging from a silver Maserati sports car to a champion racing pigeon and a mink coat.
The slogan format remained dominant but a loosening of the lottery rules in the mid-1970s saw the rise of the no-skill, free prize draw – albeit with a very strict ‘no purchase necessary’ (NPN) requirement. This was much more draconian than today’s legal definition of NPN, and in the early days some promoters daren’t even risk opening a pack on an entrant’s behalf. Complete packs of promotional products were often sent free to applicants on demand, and some promoters even sent cash to NPN applicants so that they could buy a promotional pack at a time and place of their own choosing.
The widespread introduction of barcodes and itemised till receipts in the late ‘70s gave promoters the opportunity to target promotions better in certain stores between specified dates, for example. Premium-rate phone calls, and a more flexible telecoms system, saw the rise of phone-in promotions from the late 1980s. The early 1990s saw the arrival of instant wins - technology was very basic with none of the unique codes and algorithms employed today – winning packs contained a simple winning message or token, with Heinz famously hiding four miniature houses in their cans which the finders could swap for a real home. Sales of KitKat bars soared by 2,000%, with boxes changing hands for £1,000 on eBay, when Golden Tickets were hidden in packs offering a main prize of a place in the Big Brother house during the programme’s heyday.
The impact of the National Lottery when it launched in 1994 – followed by scratch cards the following year – was massive. Suddenly huge prizes could be won instantly for little or no effort, and the idea of someone being expected to spend time collecting heaps of labels or tokens and come up with a witty slogan all for a comparatively modest reward suddenly became less attractive. This would see a further shift towards easier-to-enter draws and instant win promotions.
At around the same time, the fledgling internet was beginning to make an impact and online prize promotions were born. It took a while for promoters to fully embrace the new medium though, and the first competition specifically designed for online interaction and entry was probably the ‘Weetabix House’ on-pack promotion in 2002 which attracted over 730,000 entries. Online security was still in its infancy though, and prize claims still had to be made by post.
Technology continues to surge ahead, and competitions evolve to take full advantage. The first mention of Facebook and Twitter comps in the Compers News archive are 2004 and 2006 respectively, the same years that the services launched, so promoters are quicker off the block these days. The increased use of apps like Blippar are bringing a new dimension to prize promotions this century. It’s an exciting future!
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Category: Wonderful World of Promotions