Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)


September 11, 2012

Why free stuff has always been so irrationally exciting


Not surprisingly, incentive goods, however popular, tend to be quite shoddy. Take the mid-19th-century book dealers that successfully sold remaindered books (that were themselves otherwise of little value in the market) by offering worthless trifles (imitation silk handkerchiefs, electroplated pen and pencil sets, and so on) along with them. People were more interested in the gift than the item they were purchasing.

When incentives actually are quality goods, their value is typically low compared with the amount of consumer investment required to get them. The free toaster famously offered in exchange for opening a bank account was quite modest compensation for, potentially, a lifetime's worth of loyal patronage.

We continue to be seduced by free stuff, our consumer selves having evolved little over time. Children today are often enticed by the prizes that accompany McDonald's Happy Meals, which also serve as clever tie-ins to toy lines and new films.

Now, though, most incentives exist in abstract form, as frequent-flier miles and loyalty points with tightly controlled and often opaque redemption procedures. These incentives also come at a price that extends beyond the mere cost of purchase, because we blithely trade valuable contact information and personal details for something as mundane as a promotional T-shirt.

Now, as then, marketers know that we can't resist free things, even as they end up costing us more and more.


— Wendy Woloson is an independent scholar and consulting historian. Her most recent book is "In Hock: Pawning in America from the Revolution to the Great Depression."

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