Back in August 1992, household electrical appliance manufacturer Hoover launched a marketing promotion in a bid to move surplus vacuum cleaner and washing machine stock from its warehouse in the pre-christmas period.
The promotion promised free airline tickets to any customer that spent £100 or more on the company’s products and the offer initially provided two round trip tickets to Europe in return for the purchase, but this was later expanded to include flights to the USA.
As one would expect, the general public took up the offer with great gusto and Hoover quickly found itself to be overwhelmed by the demand for new vacuum cleaners, flight availability and the cost of the flights. The simple reality is that they had not anticipated the projected demand – the promotion proved far too generous.
This was the days before budget airlines, so air travel was still a pursuit that was restricted mainly to the well-heeled and as a result, it still retained an element of glamour.
The promotion remains legendary in marketing circles as a prime example of how not to run a sales promotion and despite being a flawed idea from the beginning, the company made things worse for itself by not adequately taking on board just how serious the situation was getting.
As their travel partners for the European end of the promotion struggled to deal with the deluge of requests for free flights, the company then made the ill-fated move of launching a second promotion that provided flights to the USA. The subsequent TV advertising campaign served the purpose of reminding those customers that had not yet claimed their flights for the European campaign to hand in their vouchers as a result of the tagline: “Two return seats: Unbelievable.”
What compounded matters further however was the inevitable media firestorm that, despite providing a wave of bad publicity for Hoover, also served to create additional awareness for the offer, thus driving up demand for the, ‘too good to be true’ deal even further.
As the situation became increasingly impossible for Hoover to manage despite the company’s attempts to limit the deluge of claims using the maze of small print written on the vouchers, disgruntled passengers began to take matters into their own hands.
One example was a Mr. David Dixon who was a horse trainer from Cumbria. He became an instant media sensation and national hero when he impounded a Hoover van that was parked at his property after a repair man had come to fix the very washing machine he had purchased to obtain the free flights.
Mr. Dixon said of the incident: “There comes a time when you’ve got to make a stand, when you’ve got to say enough is enough. He said ‘If you think buying a washing machine’s going to get you two tickets to America, you must be an idiot.’ Huh! That was like a red rag to a bull. I thought to myself; ‘an idiot am I?’ I said; ‘I’m not as stupid as you are. I’m not going to have to walk home’.”
Questions began to get raised in parliament about the affair and as people across the country banded together, the Hoover Holidays Pressure Group was formed in 1993 to protest about the company not keeping its promises.
The group’s founder Harry Cichy said, “One bag to start with, then two bags, then three bags. We ended up with about 8000 members. One day a judge would phone up, next day a professor, the next minute it was a pig farmer from Gloucester.”
The campaign would go on to dominate Mr Cichy’s life for the next 6 years and it ended up taking him to the headquarters of Hoover’s parent company in Iowa.
The company soon found itself fighting legal battles up and down the country in the small claims courts as hundreds of customers began to sue the company with the help of the pressure group.
Roughly 220,000 people eventually flew as a result of Hoover’s promotion, but it went down in history as one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time and ended up costing the company over £50 million and caused an immeasurable amount of damage to its corporate reputation.
During discussions about the affair here at The W1nners’ Club, we calculated that it would have been far cheaper to force customers to accept a free Hoover vacuum cleaner every time they purchased a flight to the USA or Europe, but then we realised that this may have caused the inadvertent effect of destroying the entire aviation industry!