As we approach Christmas we are being deluged with ads on TV. It brought to mind the devices used by manufacturers of the past. There was a time when radio ads and the print media were all that was available to the makers of different products. So what to do? Well, many turned to free giveaways to convince the buyer to try the product.
Children were a prime target. All the major cereal makers had shows on the radio that came on just about the time you got home from school. It was a ritual with most of us. You came home, put up your stuff, got your "after school snack" and lay on the floor facing the radio, although, of course, there was nothing to see. You listened to the Lone Ranger, or Captain Midnight or Little Orphan Annie or whatever was on in your area. All the shows had some kind of promotion. For example: Those like Captain Midnight had membetship cards and decoder rings. Little Orphan Annie who was sponsored by Ovaltine had an Ovaltine mug with a picture of Annie on it. All these wonders were free. One only had to send in a label or boxtop from the product and 25 cents for shipping and handling.
It is hard to imagine the eagerness with which we waited for our free gift, The anticipation was almost overwhelming. Every day parents all over the country were being badgered by a child waiting for that decoder ring or other prize. "Is it here yet? Is it here yet?"
Then the big day. You got home from school, and your Mom handed you a package with your name on it. You immediately rushed to your room, tore open the box and there it was, an official looking membership card and joy of joys, your decoder ring. After listening to the program that afternoon you carerfully took down the "secret message". You went to a private place, because, of course, it was secret , and non members could not know what the message was., For those of you who have seen Christmas Story that is exactly how it was. The secret message was a plug for the product or a simple admonition on some moral issue like "Captain Midnight's friends never tell a lie."
Grown ups were not left out of this bonanza. Those that made dish or laundry soap, and it was soap, not detergent, often included something like a free dish towel in the box. You could send away for a piece of Fiesta Ware or a free, framed print to hang on your wall, to name a few.
As a child I had my membershio card and decoder ring, an Orphan Annie Ovaltine mug, a wonderful circus you cut out of heavy paper and put together with tabs and slots offered by Rice Krispies and a flashlight. The flash light was a tube made of heavy, textured cardboard and painted blue. It had a bulb at the front covered by a piece of glass and a circle of cardboard at the other end. No switch. To turn it on you simply pushed on the cardboard covering the back end which pushed the battery up where it came in contact with the bulb and like magic, a beam of light. I can not tell you how many hours I spent in the yard after dark using my flashlight or how often I read by flashlight at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. I don't remember who offered this gem, but I remember it with great fondness.
It may be hard to understand in today's world the excitement that one of these promotional gifts produced in the child fortunate enough to get one. It was more than a toy. It was a ticket to a world of imagination where you could be a super hero, a circus performer, or anything you could dream.