Adam T. Sutton

Pennies in Direct Mail

August 5th, 2009

Every once in a while I hear about a marketing promotion gone horribly wrong. When I first heard about a 1956 Reader’s Digest campaign that involved pennies, I thought it was another marketer’s tale of woe.

The late Walter H. Weintz, a direct mail pioneer and the circulation director at Reader’s Digest in the 50s, mailed 100 million pennies as part of a subscription campaign. The pennies were mailed with a letter encouraging recipients to mail back one penny as a down payment on a subscription, according to the New York Times article linked above.

Here’s what happened, according to this random fact book:

“The magazine planned to send out 50 million letters, which meant they needed 100 million coins–enough to deplete the entire New York area of pennies. The U.S. Mint intervened, forcing Reader’s Digest to make quick arrangements to ship in 60 million more pennies from all over the country. Then, when the company finally got all the pennies it needed, it stored them all in one room–and the floor collapsed under the weight.”

Sounds like a total disaster right? Not exactly. The promotion drew a record number of responses.

“That mailing, along with other direct marketing campaigns that Mr. Weintz conceived, was credited in large part for raising the magazine’s circulation” from about 4.5 million in 1948 to over 12 million in 1959, according to the New York Times.

Weintz took a big risk on that campaign, and it paid off big time. It goes to show that marketing far out on a limb can yield the best fruit–but only if the branch doesn’t break under your feet.

Adam T. Sutton

About Adam T. Sutton

Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter, MarketingSherpa
Adam generates content for MarketingSherpa's Email and Inbound Marketing newsletters. His years of experience in interviewing marketers and conveying their insights has spanned topics such as search marketing, social media marketing, ecommerce, email and more. Adam previously powered the content behind MarketingSherpa's Search and Consumer-marketing newsletters and carries that experience into his new role. Today, in addition to writing articles, he contributes content to the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa blogs, as well as MECLABS webinars, workshops and summits.

Prior to joining MarketingSherpa, Adam was the Managing Editor at the Mequoda group. There he created content and promotions for the company's daily email newsletter and managed its schedule.

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  1. August 10th, 2009 at 12:22 | #1

    Why did they need 100,000,000 pennies for a mailing of only 50,000,000?

    The down payment was essentially paid for by the magazine, so the subscriber had no legal obligation to pay for the remaining amount of the subscription.

  2. August 10th, 2009 at 12:48 | #2

    wow just the physical planning of a campaign increased business, let alone the campaign itself. Nice

  3. August 10th, 2009 at 12:57 | #3

    Great Story! I love it when people take a risk. Bill Glazers book is coming out in October, and this post reminded me of how what seems outrageous to us at one moment, can often turn into something that is heralded as Brilliant.

    Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  4. Glenn
    August 11th, 2009 at 09:06 | #4

    I could be wrong on this, but I think there were two pennies in each mailing, not one. The recipient was to keep one penny for good luck and return the other as the down payment. The success of this mailing led to the use of coins, tokens, and other involvement devices as standard fare in direct mail subscription packages.

  5. August 28th, 2009 at 15:31 | #5

    I believe there is another piece to this story. I remember reading that Reader’s Digest wasn’t prepared to handle all the undeliverables that were returned to them. Since it is illegal to destroy US currency, they couldn’t throw them out. So they arranged for the local Boy Scout troop to process and roll all the returned pennies, and got a tax deduction for donating them to the Scouts.

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