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.
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).
"When the gentleman from Food Network called me to tell me I had won the trip to New York City to be on the Emeril Live show, he said, 'I just want to let you know that your postcard was just so interesting, I just couldn't help but pick it,' " Brown says. " 'It was the hot dog [shaped postcard]. It looked exactly like a New York hot dog!' "
According to the Promotions Marketing Association, American companies spent $1.8 billion on contests and sweepstakes in 2003. While some of that money goes to advertising and administering the giveaways, there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of prizes to be claimed every year. With two hours spent per day on the hobby, the average sweeper takes in one or two smaller prizes per month, like the $10 gift certificate sweeper Deb Houin recently won from Hershey's, and a grand prize once a year, such as the Wally Dallenbach race-car hood Houin scored a few years back.
But it isn't simply greed that draws sweepers to the hobby. Harriet Brown was first drawn to giveaway promotions as a single mother who wanted her children to have better toys than she could afford. Decades later, she sticks with it for more than the prizes themselves. "It's the challenge of it all," says Brown. "I get a high out of winning."
If this sounds like the rush associated with gambling, it's not far off. Sweepstaking offers some of the same thrill as pulling the slots but without any legal or moral hurdles, and without having to leave the home. (Sweepstakes winnings are filed on annual tax returns in the same way as the spoils of gambling.)
Outsiders view sweepers—insofar as they notice them—as sad sacks grubbing for handouts. Especially in its extremes, the hobby earns its low reputation. "Karen Evers," who is out of work with a disability, toils 40 hours a week on the sweeps and pays acquaintances to fill out entry cards for up to 20 more hours per week, because her disability makes it painful to write. She credits her dedication to sweeping as a factor in the dissolution of her marriage. She spoke only on the condition of anonymity, for fear that the prizes FedEx and UPS deliver to her house would be stolen from her doorstep if neighbors knew of her hobby. Whether paranoid or wary of scorn, many sweepers speak only to each other about the hobby, hiding it from friends, co-workers, and even family members.
Even so, sweepstaking, like most hobbies, has become a social activity. Hard-core sweepers tend to congregate at the SweepSheet Web site. Members chat about heartburn, pets, and mothers-in-law with as much gusto as they do sweeps news. In local club meetings, sweepers share stories of wins, circulate entry blanks, and swap strategies. Over Memorial Day weekend, more than 700 came to San Diego for the 15th annual National Sweepstakers Convention. It featured workshops and oodles of raffles to ensure just about everybody went home a winner. (The grand prize of a roll of 10,000 first-class stamps was a sensation.)
The social side of the hobby is especially meaningful for Terry Brown. She and husband David met in 1998 at a meeting of the Chesapeake Crabs sweepers club and were married in May 2000 at the national convention. This past April, David was shot three times while walking in a park near their home in the Baltimore suburbs in what appears to have been a random, unprovoked assault, allegedly by a local teen. Upon hearing the news, sweepers, many who had never even met the Browns, sent them restaurant and gas station gift certificates and phone cards they'd won. Sweepers also mailed hundreds of entries in David's name to Pepperidge Farm's "Pick Your Passion" sweepstakes, trying to win the grand prize of a car, or a cash alternative, which could be used toward medical bills. David died in September after a five-month battle with his injuries. The sweepers didn't win the car but continued to enter sweeps in David's name up until his death.