Something for Nothing and Your Gifts for Free

(Part 1)

Remember when companies wanted your business enough to compete for it by offering free gifts? Many types of businesses used this marketing technique to gain new customers and keep current ones. Competition was fierce. Was there a broader business base when we were in our formative years? Or was it the expansion to the suburbs that produced the proliferation of entrepreneurial profiteers? In Mister Boomer’s case, that’s hard to say. In the pre-interstate freeway system days, Mister B’s neighborhood ran along the main truck route through his portion of the state. While that certainly would draw specific businesses to the area, like gas stations, others that cropped up were truly intended to service a local rather than transient population. Free gifts, clearly, were intended for a neighborhood clientele. They were looking for customers for life.

Banks were probably among the most consistent givers of free gifts. The usual pitch, advertised in ads in local newspapers, was to offer a free toaster, blender, the occasional piggy bank (complete with bank logo) or $25 Savings Bond to open a new savings or checking account. It would seem, though, that timing was everything. Mr. B’s family didn’t seem to be able to cash in on this particular gift bonanza. Once the Boomer family children reached age 10 or 11, the parents walked them down to the closest bank, which is where they banked, and opened their first savings accounts. There never seemed to be any promotional giveaways in effect when the time came to start an account. There were regional banks around, but most were decidedly local in nature, with no more than a few branches in adjacent suburbs.

Banks all over the country still employ this method of attracting new customers, so it looks like we boomers have learned to like free stuff from our parents. A quick check on the Internet has dug up offers for $50 to be placed into your new account, iPods, Flip cameras, cordless drills, step stools, gift cards, art prints, and even one that offered a free HDTV with an initial deposit of $20,000.

Gas stations may be the one most of us recall as a great place for functional freebies. Before the oil embargo of the 1970s, gas stations were on almost every other corner. This caused a healthy competition that kept prices extremely low — in fact, most of us can recall paying twenty-five cents or less a gallon. There wasn’t going to be much more room for them to discount the gas, so starting in the 1950s they turned to giveaways to bring in new customers and keep regular customers loyal to their brand. They offered small toys, trinkets like keychains, maps, drinking glasses and logo-based specialty products.

Of course, most of us recall the drinking glasses. At the rate of one glass per fill-up, your genuine Libby (or Anchor Hocking) set could be complete in a matter of a couple of months. Mister Boomer recalls Mobil and Shell giving away glassware in his neighborhood. There were Standard Oil, Cities Service, Sinclair, Mobil, Shell and Union Oil stations within ten blocks of the Mister Boomer household. Mr. B’s family preferred the “free” Welch’s jelly glasses to gas station glasses. Due to Mr. B’s sister’s addiction to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the glasses collection grew weekly. They were hearty glasses and seldom broke, so the excess was relegated to basement storage, only to be sold at bargain prices in a yard sale.

Union Oil gave an orange ball with their blue logo on it in the late sixties or early seventies. The ball had a hole in the bottom to enable it to slip over your radio antennae. When your car was in a lot at an amusement park or shopping center, yours would stick out with this simple “car finder.” Unfortunately, yours blended with the hundreds of others who capped their antennae with the same ball.

Sinclair Oil had a dinosaur in its logo. This gave them the opportunity to give away dinosaur-themed gifts, like coloring books and trinkets with the green dinosaur on them. There was a Sinclair station on the corner of Mr. B’s block. One day his father filled up at the station and gave the gift to Mr. B. It was soap in the shape of a green dinosaur, housed in a box about the size of animal crackers. Mister Boomer treated the soap as if it were a plastic model to play with, until his siblings didn’t approve of his outside-the-box thinking. They threatened to steal it away unless it was given its soapy utilitarian function. Jealousy had reared its ugly head over a free gas station gift, but Mr. B brought the “toy” into the tub after that.

Local as well as national supermarkets hopped on the free gift bandwagon, too. Mr. B remembers his parents clipping the newspaper ad coupon for a free pound of Eight O’Clock coffee at the A&P. Mr. B’s father generally did the shopping with the kids — he would grab the red bag of coffee and spill it into the in-store grinder. He’d turn the dial to “Percolator” and let it rip. Imagine that. A free pound of coffee may be the reason Mister Boomer enjoys the aroma — but not the taste — of coffee to this day.

There were many other free gifts for all of the area’s supermarkets, though they almost always required a coupon that ran with the weekly newspaper ad. Get a free 32 oz. bottle of a local brand of soda pop with an additional purchase. (Remember when soda pop was sold by the ounce instead of liter?) Get a pound of ground beef with the additional purchase of other fresh meat. Buy one of something, get another free. Every week something else would be available to lure customers into choosing one store over another.

While not exactly free, but certainly in the subsidized gift category, were the bonus items at supermarkets that could be purchased for a reduced fee. The biggest promotions among these in Mr. B’s neighborhood were Corning Ware sets, china and dinner ware sets, and complete Funk & Wagnell’s encyclopedia sets, doled out one volume at a time. Each week the Mister Boomer family would pick up one of these items. The entire “good” china set that Mr. B’s mom owned (used only on holidays) came from these supermarket promotions. And the Funk & Wagnell’s encyclopedias were used umpteen times to complete school reports, saving the need for a trip to the local library.

Other businesses got in the free gift action, too. A local pizzeria passed out flyers evry week, offering a small pizza free with the purchase of a large. A newspaper ad for a local menswear store offered a free shirt and tie with the purchase of a men’s suit.

Many boomers recall these times with great nostalgia, lamenting the fact that today’s youth doesn’t seem to appreciate the true value of a dollar. Is that the case? Or is it that by percentage, the things we need day to day are now so much more expensive in relation to earned income? Or is it that our boomer parents, part of the burgeoning middle class, got a few breaks along the way in the form of something for nothing?

What is the best free gift you remember from your early boomer days?

Next week, in part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss the tremendous impact trading stamps had on boomer families.

8-Track Mind

In 1964, Bill Lear and the engineers at the Lear Jet Corporation, in conjunction with the contributions of several other corporations that included Motorola, Ampex, RCA, Ford and General Motors, released the Lear Jet Stereo 8, the first consumer 8-track tape player. Magnetic tapes encased in a housing had been around since the fifties, most notably in 4-track form. Radio broadcasters had been using a similar cartridge in the mid-50s, to make it easier to play jingles and commercials on demand.

The 8-track cartridge as introduced by Bill Lear consisted of 4 programs, 2 tracks each, building on earlier inventions. In previous incarnations, the tape was set to run in a continuous loop. Tracks were switched by the means of a metal foil that activated the sensor in the playback mechanism. Lear’s main alteration in the cartridge was moving the rubber pinch roller, formerly part of a playback mechanism, into the cartridge itself.

By 1967, Ford offered an 8-track player as an option to all its vehicle models, and RCA began releasing 8-tracks for its catalog of artists. This combined effort helped the 8-track gain credibility and popularity. Once consumers saw its portability and convenience, the era of the 8-track was underway.

Plagued with consumer problems from the start, the 8-track cartridge proved large and kinda clunky, filling up interior console bins and making storage inside a car more difficult. That notwithstanding, what irked most people Mister Boomer knew was the constant tape hiss and loud ker-chunk heard when the tracks were changing, which often happened within the middle of a song. Restricted to the tape’s eight tracks, albums had to be readjusted to conform to the technology’s requirements. This meant reconfiguring song order in many cases, songs being broken between tracks, and, in some situations, songs repeated or content added to fill the tape.

By the 1970s, the 8-track was on the way out. Cassettes, though introduced in 1963, didn’t overtake the 8-track until the late 70s. Consumers discovered that cassettes were cheaper than 8-track tapes, and record companies had to take a hard business look at the various formats they were publishing: vinyl, 8-track and cassette. By the time compact discs gained in popularity in the early 80s, the 8-track’s day in the sun had waned.

Mister Boomer’s entry into the world of the 8-track began in the summer of 1972. His brother had installed a unit in his own car a couple of years earlier, and now was selling that car. He removed the 8-track player and, since his newer auto would have a built-in 8-track player, offered the older unit as a hand-me-down to Mister B.

Mister B's 8-track player
That's right, boomers. This is an actual scan of the owner's manual for Mister B's in-car 8-track player.

Brother Boomer helped Mister B install the unit inside the glove compartment of his 1964 Plymouth. The Mini-8 fit perfectly. Instead of permanently securing it to the included hanging bar, though, a locking mechanism was installed in the roof of the compartment. The male counterpart was attached to the top of the unit. This allowed it to slide and lock into the bracket so the unit could be removed and carried when leaving the car, providing an extra layer of security. Tape players were a common target of auto break-ins. Employing a hacksaw blade from their father’s toolbox, the two boomer boys cut holes in the door panels and back window deck to house the speakers. True stereo sound would now be achieved. A few wires and a fuse later, the unit was ready for a test drive.

Despite the easy fit of the player in the glove box, the 8-track tapes themselves were six inches long. Inserted into the unit, approximately two inches remained outside the entry slot to enable the cartridge to be grabbed and removed. This meant that when Mister B wanted to activate the unit, the glove box needed to remain open, as the tape extended beyond the compartment. It also meant the tape would be out of reach while driving. It was portable music on demand all right — as long as you inserted a tape before getting underway.

Nonetheless, the floodgates now open, Mister B began buying 8-tracks, and added more titles to his annual family Christmas list. His girlfriend at the time had an interest in Elton John (Rocket Man), Cat Stevens (Peace Train) and Chicago (Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?), so naturally those purchases had to be made. Sitting in the passenger seat, she could control the volume and, since there was no rewind, click through the tracks to her heart’s content. Yet there was more. Mister B took this new in-the-car portability as the chance to discover new music he might not be able to play on the home “Victrola,” as Mister B’s mother called the family phonograph. This experimentation resulted in Jethro Tull (Aqualung; Thick As A Brick), The Doors (Best of the Doors), Santana (Abraxas), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Deja Vu; 4-Way Street) and even Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida) joining the collection. As a free-thinking, red-blooded American male, classical music on 8-track sat side by side with the rock ‘n roll in the Mister Boomer 8-track library (Best of Beethoven; Best of Tchaichovsky; Mozart Symphony in G Minor; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos).

It may have been clunky, annoying and inconvenient, but it was your music when you wanted it. In the early 80s, Mister Boomer was heading out to seek his fame and fortune away from Middle America. The entire 8-track collection, numbering in the vicinity of 80 tapes, were quickly sold, along with their storage cases, at a garage sale. Never climbing on the cassette bandwagon, Mister B’s personal portable music would have to wait until the introduction of the iPod before he forayed back into the realm.

Well, boomers, what is your happy 8-track memory?