The strange hobby of "sweepstaking."

Commentary about business and finance.
Oct. 14 2004 1:03 PM

Jeepers Creepers, Where'd You Get Those Sweepers?

The strange hobby of "sweepstaking."

You can't win if you don't play
You can't win if you don't play

Harriet Brown spends two to four hours every day studying sweepstakes rules, penning her name and address onto sweepstakes entry forms, and preparing special envelopes for the forms. When she hears about a new sweepstakes from Coca-Cola, Hershey's, or another major brand, she mails in an entry every day until the contest's closing date, even if that means six months' worth of envelopes and $70 in postage. When an insurance company raffles a lawnmower or washer/dryer for people willing to sit through an hourlong sales talk, she sees great odds, not a waste of time.

Brown, who has been entering sweepstakes for more than 50 years, can tell by the ZIP code and address what kind of envelope to send for mail-in promotions. Familiar ZIPs and P.O. boxes indicate a professional agency hired by the company to run the contest. If it's Blair, NE 68008 or Grand Rapids, MN 55730, it's best just to send a standard white No. 10 envelope. But if it's a new zip, especially with a regular street address, there's a chance the company is pulling winners itself and could be swayed by her personalized envelopes decorated with stickers, colorful designs, and fuzzy material.

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Brown is a devotee of the strange hobby of "sweepstaking." Some 20,000 dedicated groupies, predominantly middle-aged women and their husbands, have turned prize giveaways run by companies to promote their brands into a pastime. There are thousands of national sweepstakes every year and even more regional and state sweepstakes. They typically offer a range of loot from promotional baseball caps to home appliances to the coveted "Four Cs": cars, cruises, computers, and cash. Brown has won all four in the last five years, including a Ford Explorer from Coca-Cola, $10,000 from RC Cola, a computer from Toys "R" Us, and a California-to-Mexico cruise for four. While the rest of us figure it's not worth entering sweepstakes, sweepers not only enter but claim they know how to win.

(One sweeper wrote on the Sweepsheet.com message board that while on a giveaway vacation, she and her family encountered a woman who scoffed, " 'Oh, I never enter those.' My middle son just smiled and said, 'And we thank you.' ")

"Contests" involve some sort of judgeable submission, like a poem or jingle, but "sweepstakes" require just an entry card, with no purchase necessary (it's illegal to require a purchase in most states). Biweekly newsletters such as Rags to Riches, Sweepstakes Winner, and SweepSheet list sweeps and their entry requirements. Each sweepstakes has its own rules, from the type of card to send, to what sort of information to put on it (e.g., name, address, phone number), to how often one can enter. Allstate Insurance's Gold Medal sweepstakes, which gave away a 2005 Cadillac to the grand prizewinner, limited participants to one entry per day. Sobe beverages' Adrenaline Rush giveaway—with a $5,000 Guitar Center gift certificate as top prize—allowed only one entry per person, period, but Johnny Lightning's 10th Anniversary sweep (grand prize: $10,000) permitted unlimited entries, although the toy-car company required all entries to arrive in hand-addressed envelopes. Sweepers like to "mega-enter" hundreds of forms in unlimited-entry sweepstakes like Johnny Lightning's. This isn't illegal. Sweepers are fine-print aficionados and leverage the sweepstakes' rules to gain the best chance of winning.

According to Clare Rosenzweig of the Promotions Marketing Association, which tracks the industry, when companies like Coca-Cola run a sweepstakes, their bottom line is that consumers have a positive experience with their brand. They'd prefer the winner be a current or future customer, but it's more important that consumers are aware that there is a prize giveaway and associate positive thoughts with the product. All of these things can happen no matter who wins, which is why most companies don't make a concerted effort to bar sweepers.

In addition to time-consuming mega-entering, other sweeper strategies include mailing envelopes from as many different mailboxes as possible, even taking entries on vacations to send them from afar. The theory is that fulfillment agencies, which draw the winners on behalf of the brands, aim for a geographical spread. Another technique is decorating envelopes so they get noticed on the other end. Sweepers buy custom-shaped or colored envelopes or make them from scratch out of maps and wall calendar photos. A sweeper can spend from $2,000 to $6,000 every year on postage alone, not to mention plenty more on envelopes and other supplies.

But are the techniques effective? Do they win?

"I don't want to say it's ludicrous," says a high-level executive at one of the leading fulfillment agencies, "But I don't think it's valid. There's no way a blue or green or textured envelope has any effect on their entries."

The agencies pick winners either by computer or with a blindfolded employee selecting envelopes out of a bin. Perhaps a textured envelope might appeal to the fingers, but a colorful one would not make a difference. The smaller the contest, however, the less likely that a fulfillment agency is involved or that the administrators are assiduous about blind drawing procedures, leaving them open to the enticements of a flashy envelope. This, and the fact that there are fewer entries than in national sweepstakes, make local sweeps popular among hobbyists. Forget sending 1,000 entries to Ed McMahon and Publishers Clearinghouse—10 attractive envelopes apiece sent to 10 different regionally run sweeps often result in at least one prize, says sweeper Terry Brown (no relation to Harriet).

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