Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
You wouldn't think of Kylie Jenner as the kind of person who needs to bribe people for attention — she has more Instagram followers than the president of the United States. But a Kardashian never has enough fans slash customers, and so she regularly offers to give away her lip kits and "kylighters" and shadow palettes to fans who imitate her own look on their account, comment on her Instagram, or engage with her app — a strategy so popular that it soon spawned imitators looking to rip off her customers.
As with her culturally appropriative swimsuits, though, Kylie is no pioneer. Giving something away in order to attract customer attention or loyalty is a time-honored tradition in the makeup business. Even as other industries have given up on giving you freebies, the makers of your favorite lipstick, foundation, and eyeliners will never quit offering you a gift with your purchase.
Giveaways, gifts with purchase, and loyalty programs (sometimes known as a free premiums) were a widely popular advertising techniques until about 20 years ago. Banks gave away toasters for new accounts opened, Marlboro promised loyal smokers prizes ranging from ashtrays to dartboards to cowboy hats, and dish soap was packaged with bonus steak knives. But these freebies fell out of favor because of fraud, changing trends, and a new emphasis on online data collection — except in the case of health and beauty products. The personal-care industry is one of few fields still using the allure of “free” to attract consumers and increase the perceived value of their products — and unlike other marketers, they will not stop anytime soon.
Personal-grooming items are marketed mostly to women. Because they are used by individual women and not their family or larger community, cosmetics are an expendable luxury — one of those things experts suggest cutting back on when budgets gets tight. When cosmetics or skincare are advertised as “free,” it is an especially powerful deal because their status as indulgences increases their perceived value — making them much more enticing than everyday items like the free toasters once promised for opening yet another bank account. Free beauty premiums are a winning strategy with roots going back more than 150 years to America's first nationally marketed product.
In 1851, B.T. Babbitt launched his Best Soap by offering full-color high-quality lithograph posters of various scenes — landscapes, romantic tableaus, patriotic and religious imagery — to customers gratis, distinguishing and adding value to an everyday household item that would otherwise seem cheap to female consumers. Other entrepreneurs followed suit and expanded their targets beyond women. Adolphus Busch distributed branded hat pins and bottle openers to customers in the 1880s; to promote his new beer for “connoisseurs,” Michelob, in 1896, he gave away the wildly popular lithograph Custer’s Last Flight to bars across America. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes began the tradition of prizes in cereal boxes in 1910. S&H Green Stamps had a popular loyalty program, giving away everything from bicycles to china to hair dryers, which lasted from the turn of the 20th century until the gas crisis of the 1970s. The practice especially resonated for Pond’s, which offered women a free tube of their Vanishing Creme “at our expense” for over a decade.
Giveaways went hand in (soft) hand with many other advances in advertising, from test marketing to sex. Claude Hopkins distributed coupons for free bars of Palmolive in Benton Harbor, Michigan, while compensating shopkeepers for participating in the premium program. By studying which coupons were most frequently redeemed, Hopkins was able to quantitatively verify the success of his new advertising technique: selling health products as beauty aids. It wasn't a big step from selling beauty to selling sex, a technique initiated by the Peggy Olson-like Helen Resor. Her intimate 1917 A Skin You Love To Touch magazine campaign for Woodbury Soap featured couples snuggling suggestively — and offered a Babbitt-esque free lithograph.
Makeup was emerging as a common practice off-stage, but throughout the ’20s and the Depression, it retained its status as a luxury and distinguished itself from everyday products like cold cream and toothpaste by avoiding the free-premium technique. Other health and beauty companies continued to offer freebies as a way to keep sales robust even as premiums receded in a flush economy. Flattening corset makers Boyshform gave away their product at the second annual Miss America pageant, and Pepsodent gave away trial toothpaste “to beauties of all races.”
“Premiums are attractive because they change the value equation without changing the price of the product,” said Laurence Minsky, associate professor of marketing at Columbia College Chicago, in a phone interview. “There's always this back and forth between the hard sell and the soft sell, and premiums come in during the hard sell eras. When the competition heats up, these things become more of a tool.” After soft-selling the jazz age, things were about to get competitive and stay that way for more than half a century.
During the Depression, consumers were eager to find good deals, and premiums on everyday goods like Depression glass, Borax soap, and toothpaste were a potent incentive for cash-strapped consumers with little to spend on even the most basic items. Kotex advertised “authoritative booklets on Feminine Hygiene” with its products, offering the avoidance of an awkward conversation as their freebie. When resources were scarce but advertising heavy during World War II, Modess pads held a contest offering chance at a free war bond to customers willing to anonymously explain why they loved Modess.
After a national effort at conservation during World War II, America was ready to collect some stuff — and Estée Lauder soon had a landmark strategy ready to draw acquisitive postwar women to her wares. In 1959, Lauder did not have the budget to advertise in major magazines, so she took a different tactic to reach female consumers. She began promising “a gift for you from Estée Lauder” to any customer who made a purchase of her product at department stores. The gift was initially a powder compact in light blue, which Lauder felt had an air of luxury that would coordinate with bathroom wallpaper and decorative soap. Gifts with purchase are still an expectation at department stores like Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s.
As the century wore on, free premiums were a common tool used by brands across the board, from grocers to manufacturers of tires to makers of dish soap. Marketers understood that consumers responded to free premiums, and gave their customers more and more opportunities to save money by spending money with premiums and coupons. What advertising executives did not understand was how creative and coordinated coupon queens could get — and how they could outsmart advertisers at their own game. Some consumers committed fraud by renting additional PO boxes (sometimes in multiple states), creating counterfeit coupons, and falsifying receipts. “It was a game for people,” Mary Potter Kenyon, the author of the 2013 book Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession, said in a phone interview. “But then the game changed.”
By the late 1990s, premium programs had slowed to a near halt. The rise of the internet brought about a coincident shift toward more targeted advertising and a new emphasis on data collection, which premium and loyalty programs did not directly serve. Both consumers and marketers became more sophisticated. The trend turned away from gifts and toward cash and discounts, which are easier to transact online.
“[Young advertising executives], fresh out of school with an MBA in marketing, [have] never heard of premiums or promotional products,” wrote advertising executive George Kling in 2002. Though some men were coupon and premium enthusiasts, most were women like Kenyon, an Iowa housewife raising seven kids. “I don't think marketers got the mindset,” Kenyon said. “They're mostly men, sitting in an office, not living the housewife lifestyle.”
Health and beauty companies, though, specialize in the lifestyles of women. Instead of abandoning free premiums, they kept on giving stuff out — and not just luxury brands. Upscale beauty retailer Sephora offers loyalty programs to regular customers, as does high-low Ulta, as does Eyes Lips Face (e.l.f.) cosmetics, with affordable price points topping out at $6. Even humble drugstore CVS has a successful Beauty Club program offering money back for buying makeup.
Beauty brands don't just reward customers for their loyalty, though. They also give freebies as a way to attract new customers and create social media buzz. Small beauty samples — especially perfumes — are a staple of magazine advertising, but on the internet, the giveaway is queen. Subscription beauty service Birchbox offers regular giveaway contests on their Instagram feed — usually right next to an Estée Lauder quote — enticing customers to promote Birchbox on their own feed for a chance to win. Social media fiends create not just attention but also an aspirational air for beauty products, creating engagement even when their customers don't have extra cash for beauty in their budget.
While free premiums are thoroughly out of fashion in non-beauty industries at the moment, advertising is as cyclical and flighty as contouring trends. “I think if the economy really tanks or gets competitive again, the bigger premiums will come back,” said Minsky. “It’s smarter to add value than merely discount. By discounting, one is lowering the perceived value of the brand. One can never predict if it will return to broad popularity, but it can be a very smart tactic since continual sales are a race to the bottom.”
Estée Lauder knew as well as any Sephora executive or Kardashian that giving something away for free makes an indulgence seem smarter, less selfish. When her company bought MAC in 1998, it brought her strategies on board. In honor of Lipstick Day, on June 29th, MAC cosmetics offered a free tube of their lipstick to in-store customers willing to wait in the lines that clogged shopping malls and wrapped around city streets. Some lipstick lovers even camped out overnight to ensure they got their favorite shade for free. Others were upset when they waited hours to find that tubes of red and pink were gone, leaving behind only shades of blue and black. Still, though — free lipstick.
By offering lipstick as a premium to devoted customers, MAC Cosmetics increased the allure of a pricey product apparently worth spending hours in line to receive. Their lipsticks are accessible because they’re free, but in demand because they're worth waiting for, even overnight. Even if decoder rings never come back to cereal boxes, free premiums remain a winning strategy for MAC and other brands seeking to convince women that their personal-care products are an attainable luxury.
Cosmetics, beauty, and other grooming products are criticized for using the allure of beauty and sex to make women feel like they're not good enough, and rightfully so. But selling luxuries to women is not easy when women are used to putting themselves last — especially in a weak economy. By giving away their products, cosmetics companies are also telling women that, to paraphrase a slogan, they’re worth it — worth an extravagance, worth trying a new look, worth a free gift. With purchase.