(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #97, October 2012)
Everyone loves free stuff. It doesn’t matter if it is a kid looking through a cereal box, a rational adult earning a free sandwich after eating ten bad ones or a car guy getting a gift bag at a swap meet. It’s universal and will probably always be that way. The free stuff craze applied equally well to car salesmen during the first half of the 20th century. How could a dealership motivate its sales staff? Offer free stuff. Better yet, send a catalog of possible winnings home to a salesman’s wife for some extra motivation.
In 1905 Oldsmobile launched what could have been one of the earliest incentive programs for sales. Rather than tie up salesmen with prospect recruiting, Oldsmobile instead sent out “A Message to Boys” offering cash prizes to any boy who brokered a sale. All the boys had to do was lead a prospect to a local dealership and if a sale was completed the boy would earn an official credit. Every boy who made at least one sale earned $10. The boy making the largest amount of sales won a new Oldsmobile Runabout even though he could be too young to drive!
More than two decades later, to capitalize on the ten-year anniversary of the Battle of the Argonne Forest and the end of World War I, Marmon launched a large sales campaign titled the “Argonne Drive.” From September 4 – October 31, 1928 salesmen were encouraged to remember the Argonne and use that same passion from that “old fight” to ensure that Marmon obtained automobile supremacy. Top salesmen would earn mystery prizes each week based on sales quotas and effort during the entre campaign.
In 1930 Studebaker also used a military theme as motivation. Salesman started out as privates and earned points that would (hopefully) see them finish as a general. Their program lasted through the first six months of the year and one point was earned for every dollar of factory list price. These points were then used to select prizes from a catalog that contained an incredible amount of merchandise. Waffle irons and umbrellas were now easily within a salesman’s grasp so long as he could close a deal.
The prize concept wasn’t a new idea in 1930 nor was it a new idea when Pontiac used it to stimulate sales in August and September of 1940. That month, Pontiac introduced a sales campaign entitled “Jump the Gun for ‘41”. This campaign was an effort to “let prospects in on the ground floor” and thereby earn a salesman more commissions and a big cash prize. That big cash prize was $50 – a nice amount of money in 1940.
Expanding on the success of the 1940 cash campaign, Pontiac announced 60 days of prize winning opportunity in early 1941 with a new “Ring the Bell” program. This time every salesman that sold a car was eligible for prizes offered in a special catalog. Items were given a point value and salesmen earned points bases on whether or not the car purchased was new (600 points) or used (300 points). An additional 200 bonus points could be earned if the prospect traded in a Ford, Chevrolet or Plymouth. Prizes were again diverse and spanned a wide range of points. A 5-iron golf club could be had for only 470 points while an electric washing machine would require a bit more effort at over 13,300 points. The Pontiac sales catalog had items for men and women and this was played upon when the dealership mailed the prize catalog directly to a salesman’s wife.
Holding these original catalogs really makes you feel connected to the past. It isn’t hard to imagine a boy running through the streets with excitement at the thought of a “free” $10. It also isn’t hard to picture a salesman turning the pages, hoping to earn his wife the family’s first automatic washing machine. After all, it doesn’t matter if it is free or “free” – we all love it!