Vintage Ads: Win A New Car! Enticing Promotions From The Golden Age Of Sweepstakes

How would you like to win a new car just by purchasing a common household product, like a bar of soap?  Or… even by not purchasing a product at all, instead just filling out a form and mailing it to some faraway place?  In past decades, it was tough to pick up a magazine and not find some sort of sweepstakes, contest or other promotional giveaway.  And many of those contests featured cars as their grand prizes, which makes them great fun for car enthusiasts to peruse decades later.

I remember as a kid occasionally pleading with my parents to enter these types of sweepstakes.  Sometimes they’d agree, usually if I did all the paperwork, which I happily agreed to do.  Then I’d daydream of mom driving a new Cadillac or something instead of that crummy old Buick.  Like most people, I never won.  Sweepstakes like this had a Golden Age, in the 1960s and ’70s when such contests peaked in both popularity and the excitement they generated.  These ads are enjoyable to look at, not just for the automotive content, but also as a window into people’s minds at a particular time.   We’re featuring here 18 sweepstakes from the 1930s up to the present day, and in all cases, one of the prizes was a car or truck.

As they say, No Purchase Is Necessary!  So sit back, relax, and think how great it would be to win a two yellow Pacers!

1937 Camay soap sweepstakes for Ford Tudor and Covered Wagon trailer

Contests have existed as long as commerce itself, but this 1937 Procter & Gamble promotion set the stage for decades of ads modeled on a similar concept: Advertise common household merchandise by tantalizing customers with the chance to win aspirational products, such as cars.  Or in this case, a car (Ford V-8 Tudor sedan) along with a 19-ft. travel trailer (made by the Covered Wagon Company).

All one needed to do was to purchase three Camay soap bars, and then send wrappers, along with a brief explanation of “Why I like Camay better than any other beauty soap” to Procter & Gamble’s Cincinnati headquarters.  This promotion was heavily advertised in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and the 25 grand prize winners were announced on the radio soap opera Pepper Young’s Family over the course of a week in June 1937.  To prove the contest’s authenticity, Procter & Gamble ran ads the next month naming all 25 winners, and advising that the additional 300 cash prize recipients have been notified of their winnings by mail.

1950 Columbia Mills window shades for Buick convertible

After taking a break during World War II, contests bounced back.  This ad, found in a 1950 Life magazine, promoted Columbia Mills window shades and followed a similar approach as the Camay ad.  Customers submitted their sales receipts, along with a 25-word statement about how Columbia shades added beauty to their home.

One lucky customer would win a Buick convertible, while 382 others would win cash prizes from $10 to $500.  If the grand prize winner was, say, a Ford gal, she could apparently opt for $2,750 cash in lieu of the Buick.

These types of contests were becoming more common, and with that came legal scrutiny.  Some states and localities judged such promotions as being forms of gambling, games of chance, or racketeering, and therefore restricted their legality.  By the 1960s, most of these heavily-advertised sweepstakes didn’t require entrants to actually purchase their products – that soothed much of the legal problems, but not all.  A small industry of firms specializing in sweepstakes administration emerged, and these overseers would discard entrants from jurisdictions that prohibited whatever form of contest was being entered.

1952 Mission Beverages sweepstakes for Crosley Super Sports

Not all sweepstakes had just one grand prize.  The lucky winner of this 1952 Mission Beverages contest received three prizes – a 5-acre Southern California orange grove, a pony and cart for your small children… and “for your teenagers,” a Crosley Super Sports.

The Crosley was – to say the least – a curious car for this contest.  A diminutive sports car with a high-revving engine, the Super Sports would have been a more likely giveaway for an auto parts supplier advertising in Road & Track than for an orange juice company advertising in general publications like Life.

The ad copy touted the Crosley “for teenagers” and then went on to call the car “Safe and easy for young people to handle.  The hit of the teen-age crowd.”  I haven’t conducted a full literature review here, but this might be the only time the 1,100-lb. Crosley was ever described as “safe.”

Only about 400 Super Sports were produced, so the winner got a car that’s now considered rare and desirable.  Although not quite as desirable as 5 acres of Southern California real estate.  As with many of these older sweepstakes, the company running the ad publicized the winners, and in this case the grand prize winner was 54-year-old Ethel Bisbee, a farmer’s wife from Pavillion, Wyoming.  No word on what Mrs. Bisbee did with her prizes.

1957 Hood Calf Starter sweepstakes for Ford Ranchero

Sometimes the automotive prizes were more suited to the likely contestants.  This 1957 contest, circulated in agricultural magazines, offered a Ford Ranchero to the winner of a contest to complete the sentence “Hood Calf Starter paid off for me because…

For folks who think that actual farmers didn’t long for Rancheros, the product promoters at H.P. Hood & Sons would probably disagree.

1961 Carnation CARnival sweepstakes ad

Why give away just one car, when you could give away dozens?  In late 1960, the Carnation Milk Company advertised this promotion in newspapers and magazines throughout North America.  Customers needed to purchase four separate Carnation products, mail the labels, along with their name and address to Carnation… and wait for the good news.

Sixty-one cars were given away – with luxury vehicles like the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental heading the pack.  Way down at the bottom of this long list were some rather unglamorous offerings, such as a Vauxhall Victor, Morris 1000 and Simca Aronde.  But still… 61 cars??  How could Carnation possibly see a return on investment from this promotion by selling 25¢ cans of evaporated milk?

Incidentally, this is one of the few sweepstakes I’ve come across that was offered both in the United States and Canada.  But Canadian winners had an additional hoop to jump through – before receiving a prize, they must answer the question “Name two or three products Carnation distributes in Canada.”  Apparently, games of chance were strictly regulated in much of Canada at the time, but answering this simple question turned Carnation’s Spectacular Sweepstakes into a game of skill!

Carnation CARnival Continental winner

Carnation heavily publicized the winners, and held ceremonies to present the lucky folks with their new cars.  Among the luckiest was 21-year-old James Cherry and his wife Carol from Portsmouth, Virginia, who won the Continental.  The Rolls-Royce went to Mrs. Ronald Ingram, a wheat farmer’s wife and mother of six from Quill Lake, Saskatchewan, who chose a $17,500 check in lieu of the Silver Cloud.  Mrs. Ingram said of the Rolls-Royce “It’s a beauty, but the money will buy a boat for the family and the children will get an education.”

To me, the most unusual car in this sweepstakes was a Daimler SP-250 – that went to 38-year-old Emile Martel of Buckingham, Quebec.

1966 Diet Rite sweepstakes for Ford Country Squire

Sweepstakes in the 1960s garnered considerable attention, so companies found them to be effective product promotions.  Diet-Rite Cola was introduced as a healthy soft drink in the early 1960s, and quickly took the lead in the small-but-growing low-calorie soda market.

This sweepstakes, marketed to families, offered an all-expense paid vacation for mom, dad and the kids to the winner’s choice of Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, or any US destination.  But more exciting (for some of us) was that the winner was also treated to a new Ford Country Squire wagon.  Amusingly, second prize was a Fairlane Squire wagon.

1968 Clearasil sweepstakes for Mr. Norm Dodge Dart GTS

If Ford wagons and families went together in the 1960s, then “super-tuned” Dodge Darts went equally well with young men battling pimples.  Clearasil, a skin ointment marketed for acne treatment since 1950, ran this ad in 1968, giving away a Dart tuned by dragstrip legend “Mr. Norm.”  This was an effective combination of product and car.  After all, few products employed such successfully targeted ads to a specific audience than did acne pharmaceuticals – the companies selling these products certainly knew how to exploit their audiences’ self-consciousness.  And Mr. Norm (whose real name was Norm Kraus) was a masterful promoter in his own right, and quickly built a name for himself in the world of high-performance Mopars.

Also notice that no purchase was necessary to participate in this sweepstakes.  This increasingly became the norm over the next decade as way to get around restrictive state or local lottery regulations.

1970 Winston cigarettes sweepstakes for Cadillac DeVille convertible

Sweepstakes’ ability to bolster public relations was becoming well-recognized, and more companies jumped into the fray.  RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company launched its first nationwide sweepstakes in 1970, with a grand prize consisting of a Cadillac DeVille convertible painted in “Winston Red” (likely custom painted, as Cadillac didn’t offer a bright red color that year), along with $20,000 cash.

According to RJ Reynolds, nearly three million people entered the contest.  The grand prize winner was 35-year-old Nadine Edwards of Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, just 60 miles from Reynolds’ Winston-Salem headquarters.  The tobacco company chose to publicize the prize award, in part because – as one of the firm’s public relations spokesmen said – people had begun questioning whether high-publicity sweepstakes were for real.

Reynolds put on a festival for the whole town of Sherrills Ford – and in the middle of the jamboree sat a giant gift-wrapped “box” containing a Cadillac.  After an hour or so of partying, with free smokes (of course), free food (including 200 lbs. of barbecue… it was North Carolina, after all) and live music, an armored truck pulled up… in it was the $20,000 cash portion of the grand prize.  When Mrs. Edwards’ name was announced, she screamed.  Her husband, evidently, had been notified weeks earlier and kept the good news secret.  Upon taking the DeVille for a quick drive, Mrs. Edwards remarked how much bigger the Cadillac was than her Volkswagen.

Incidentally, Mrs. Edwards wasn’t the only winner that day.  RJ Reynolds provided a matching DeVille to the owner of the grocery store where Nadine bought her cigarettes.

1975 Diap Soap sweepstakes for yellow AMC Pacers

It’s easy to imagine folks longing over a Cadillac convertible, but… a Pacer?  Actually two Pacers.  Two yellow Pacers.  Yes, that was the First Prize for this 1975 Dial soap ad that ran in numerous magazines oriented to women (this example is from Family Circle).

In some ways this was clever marketing, for a yellow Pacer bears more than a casual resemblance to the soap bar its advertising.  But really… did anyone long to have two of these cars in their driveway?  Unfortunately, the Dial Corporation didn’t publicize the winner of this sweepstakes like how RJ Reynolds announced theirs, so the (un)lucky receipt of two Pacers seems lost to time.

1977 Yukon Gold sweepstakes for Jeep Cherokee Chief

While women typically comprised a clear majority of sweepstakes entrants, some sweepstakes were marketed to men.  This ad for Yukon Jack whiskey appeared in men’s-oriented magazines in late 1977, giving away a Jeep Cherokee Chief.

Yukon Jack is still produced – a modern sweepstakes with a GMC Yukon would be an awfully tempting combination.

1978 RC Cola sweepstakes for Datsun Lil Hustler

For a somewhat milder beverage and a more obscure truck, we have this 1978 RC Cola sweepstakes where the grand prize winner got to drive away with a Datsun Li’l Hustler Stretch (which is what Datsun called its compact pickup with a 7½’ bed).

Incidentally, the small print at the bottom notes the contest was “void in Missouri, Maryland where prohibited, and wherever else prohibited by law.”  Laws restricting sweepstakes gradually peeled away as the contests themselves became evermore commonplace, but there were some holdouts.

Missouri declared sweepstakes to be lotteries, which were prohibited.  Though lotteries were defined as including “consideration” (i.e., payment), Missouri’s attorney general determined, and the state’s Supreme Court upheld, that the postage required to mail these sweepstakes entries consisted of payment… therefore such sweepstakes were banned in the Show-Me State.  Sweepstakes fans were annoyed, and eventually got a constitutional amendment on the 1978 statewide ballot to allow sweepstakes.  It passed by a 2-to-1 margin.

1979 Subaru Brat and Mini-Brat sweepstakes

This is perhaps my favorite of these sweepstakes ads – a 1979 “Subaru Brat Sweepstakes” that poses a remarkably kid-unfriendly car (plastic seats mounted backwards in the bed?) with… kids.  Lots of kids.  Did a family ever buy one of these?

Granted the kids may be more interested in the Mini Brats being given away… actual gas-powered Mini-Brat go-carts.  The fiberglass-bodied Mini-Brats were powered by 3½-hp Briggs & Stratton engines, and with some creativity, could fit in a Big Brat’s bed.  The contest was entered directly at Subaru dealers, many of whom promoted this extensively, often with the Mini-Brats as a major draw.

Hundreds of Mini-Brats were awarded, along with three full-size Brats (Subaru claimed the contest produced 339,000 entries, which is some healthy showroom traffic).  And at least one of the grand-prize contest winners did, in fact, have kids – Rick Trant of Oxford, Mississippi happily picked one up at his local Subaru dealer, and posed for a picture with his wife… and his kids in the bed.

1983 Cadillac Seville Wimbledon sweepstakes

Tennis players often appeared in 1970s and ’80s car brochures… now here’s a sweepstakes that combines tennis with win-a-car contests.  According to the text here, Cadillac was a “sponsor of the prestigious 1983 Wimbledon telecast on NBC-TV” (which likely just meant they ran a lot of ads during the matches).  Naturally, Cadillac’s Win at Wimbledon contest commemorated this sponsorship.  A white (of course) bustleback Seville would be awarded to a lucky entrant who correctly predicted the male and female singles champions on the grass courts that year.

And in case you’re curious, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova won the 1983 men’s and women’s singles championships.

1984 Gillette World Series Bonanza sweepstakes for Pontiac Trans Am

From tennis to baseball.  Gillette ran this “World Series Bonanza” in 1983, though there wasn’t much connection to baseball other than the ads.  This wasn’t a mail-in contest, but rather customers could find entry forms in stores “wherever Gillette products are sold,” with the company giving away ten Pontiac Trans Ams and 1,000 Atari computers.

1988 Motor Trend Mustang GT sweepstakes ad

We all know that car magazines weren’t biased at all towards products sold by their advertisers [sarcasm], so I’m sure this Motor Trend sweepstakes giving away a Mustang GT convertible was perfectly above-board.  Upon entry, readers could either check the box indicating they’d want a 1-year subscription, or check the “No, I don’t want to subscribe at this time” option.  Somehow, I suspect checking that latter box, and mailing the entry form to Sweepstakes Headquarters would be a waste of a 22¢ stamp.

As fun as it might have been to connect the lines between something ordinary like a magazine subscription and something special like a new Mustang, the concept of sweepstakes got a bit stale during the 1980s.  In some respects, sweepstakes had become victims of their own success – they were now so commonplace that they’d lost the sparkle that got people excited about them decades earlier.  Additionally, people felt virtually inundated by similar promotions from big magazine promoters such as Publishers Clearing House.  Many states and even the US Congress launched investigations into the companies that administered these sweepstakes, and although the results were often little more than warnings for consumers to be cautious, sweepstakes’ appeal was fading.

1999 car sweepstakes ad

Throughout the 1990s, sweepstakes slowly receded.  Of course, such ads did not disappear entirely.  The above 1999 ad represents a time when the Sweepstakes Era and the Dot-com Bubble overlapped, with giving away one of five new cars or trucks of the customer’s choice.  It’s unclear whether this promotion gave away just one car or several, but it’s interesting to see what marketers selling to young adults in the late 1990s thought their customers’ preferred vehicles would be.

Sweepstakes magazine ads continue to this day, though rarely in the high-profile manner of the past.  Today’s examples tend to be lower-key and found in publications with more limited distribution.  The above ads are representative – a Tesla for customers of organic superfoods, and a Bronco for Lucky Strike cigarette smokers.  Incidentally, Lucky Strike is now sold by RJ Reynolds… it’s a safe bet that the ceremony to present a Bronco to this contest’s winner will be a bit less extravagant that Reynolds’ 1970 Cadillac ceremony.

Maybe big sweepstakes promotions that generate millions of entries, highly publicized awards ceremonies, and lead countless people to daydream about winning a new car will return.  In the meantime, we can always enjoy these gems from previous decades.  And I’d still love to know who won those Pacers!