Kids like me who grew up in the 1960s probably had one advantage over all generations of children before or since in that we were the greatest beneficiaries of the boom-time of incentive marketing. If you were born any earlier the economy wasn't quite so strong and so marketers were being a little more thrifty and if you were born a little later, well the bean counters kind of took over and clamped down on frivolous spending. But for about a decade and a half there was a period of unparalleled abundance where marketing folk were showering us with freebies.
My memories might be filtered through rose-tinted spectacles but I seem to remember pulling into a garage with my sister to buy petrol and coming out with armfuls of stuff. I got to choose whether we filled up at Shell or Esso according to which promotions were going on at the time, be it aluminium coins minted with the faces of the players of the world cup squad, to WWF sponsored 3D pictures of wild animals - I got the full set of those! We aquired so many free mugs that dad had to put a new shelf up!
These were the days of green shield and co-op stamps. Loyalty was a big deal and made shopping fun. Everywhere you went had giveaways of one sort or another. My dad built me a go-cart and before it was finished I'd covered it with stickers for Castrol and Motorcraft a relative had kindly picked up for me at the Earls Court Motor Show. Mum came back from the Ideal Home exhibition one year with two carrier bags stuffed with giveaways. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Somehow it all came to an end. I can't put my finger on when exactly. It may have been the economic mayhem of the 70's with the oil crisis or later Britain being so strapped it had to borrow cash from the IMF. Maybe it was the rise of Thatcher and a political class who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. I just remember going into a petrol station one day and seeing a promotion for a model Ferrari. I forget the exact nature of the deal but one had to collect enough coupons to give you the privilege of being able to buy it. The giveaways of my youth had given way to a vulgar catchpenny. I felt a chill in my heart, though I pocketed the coupons in case I changed my mind (I didn't).
That seemed to be the end of the line for free stuff. From then on if I saw anything that looked free it generally had strings attached if I looked closely enough. Some Madison Avenue executives had decreed marketing's freebies were now merchandise. Incentive marketing was dead. RIP. Then I moved to Spain. It was like stepping back in time. Suddenly I was in an agricultural community where everyone seemed to be wearing sponsored straw hats and T-shirts. It was heaven, but the best was yet to come.
I'd befriended some neighbouring farmers who belonged to the local co-operativa. Co-operatives are common in agricultural areas of Spain as they enable farmers to collaborate and get better deals on their produce. One day they said there was a coach-trip being organised to go to a trade show and they asked me to come along. It was free and a great opportunity to practice my fledgling Spanish so I said yes in a heart-beat.
The day came and we boarded the coach. It reminded me of the British Legion charabanc trips to Littlehampton my parents used to take me on when I was a kid, but instead of crates of beer being chugged it was botas of red wine! These are the wineskins that one holds overhead in order to pour the wine into the mouth, an aquired skill which I clearly lacked. I was the only one stepping off the coach with red wine stains all down my T-shirt, much to the amusement of everyone aboard! We arrived at a big exhibition center in Torre Pacheco which reminded me of Earls Court in London. For about an hour or so we wandered around the exhibits. I mounted cabs of tractors and reverentially inspected chainsaws so as to feign some knowledge or interest in such matters in order to justify my presence to those who may have correctly surmised that I was really only there for a free lunch!
Gradually we meandered to the end of the hall, exiting into what was the largest seated outdoor dining area I had ever seen. It hadn't dawned on me until that moment, but this event must have been the annual outing for all the co-opertivas in the province of Murcia, and there were clearly a lot of them! I counted the tables and worked out the number of covers was about 5000! There were articulated lorries coming and going with all the food, which was being brought to the tables by a small army of waiters and waitresses. At the end of each table was a container of ice-water the size of a plunge pool, full of beer and cans of soda to which one could help oneself.
The President of the Region of Murcia was in attendance, so I can legitimately claim to have dined with a President! The food was top-notch and it kept coming all afternoon. The event was sponsored by a number of national and regional banks, La Caixa, BBVA, Banco Popular etc all of which seemed intent on out-doing the other, both in the number of posters on display and later in freebies given out. I copped for some pens, key-rings, the obligatory straw hat and a jolly smart ice-box courtesy of the CAM bank. As the alcohol flowed, speeches were made, presentations awarded, then there was a huge raffle, which I think was done by seat number. Well it seemed to go on for hours. I've never seen so much stuff given away. From plasma TVs to George Foreman grills there were hundreds and hundreds of giveaways. It was a 1960's incentive-marketer's wet dream!
This event took place a few years before the 2008 crash. I seriously doubt in the wake of it that events like that take place anymore. The bank behind my ice box (and my mortgage) the CAM went belly-up and were sold to Sabadell for a euro. Doubtless the bean counters have since stepped in to put a stop to all the fun, but I fondly remember that one sunny day in June that was for me, the Zenith of incentive marketing.