Who was the First to Offer Free Samples?

Free samples are generally considered to be one of the most reliable ways to bolster sales of a product, sometimes to an insane degree if it’s done correctly. You see, free samples don’t just work because they give customers a chance to try something without the barrier of cost stopping them- which is an effective marketing trick in and of itself- but they also take advantage of the fact that humans seem hardwired to feel like we should do something in return when someone does something for us, in these cases invariably by buying something. Or as psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne sums up: “You’ve been given something, seemingly for nothing, and now you feel obligated to reciprocate by buying the item.”

There’s a reason there’s such a social stigma attached to taking 30 pieces of free food from the sample cart and then walking away without buying anything. It’s also one of the reasons you might decline a sample you actually want if you know you aren’t going to buy something after.

As an idea of just how overpowering the desire to reciprocate can be, in 1974 a researcher called Phillip R. Kunz sent out hundreds of Christmas cards to random people he’d never met just to see what would happen. Virtually every person replied and, interestingly, few of them were at all curious about who Kunz was- they simply felt that they had to return his gesture even though they had no idea who he was.

So this all brings us around to who the first person was to realise that giving people free stuff is an effective way of convincing them to buy something.

As you might expect given how integral this is to humans humaning, you may be unsurprised to learn that the answer to this question is, quite annoyingly, that we don’t really know; as far as anyone can tell, the idea of giving people free stuff to encourage them to become a customer may very well be one that has existed as long as we’ve bartered for goods and services.

On top of that, when you consider one of the oldest professions in history is one where some free kisses or a look at certain wobbly bits or the like may well have qualified as a “free sample”, it’s been hypothesized by some that this might have been the first widely practiced instance of this business staple.

Whatever one’s opinion on that, as for the earliest references to the free sample practise, there are many, such as the 14th century English poem written by William Langland called Piers Plowman, which features a line referring to taverners offering customers a “a tast for nouht” (a taste for nothing) to entice them to drink at their pubs. Though a minor, relatively unimportant, aspect of the wider narrative, this line establishes that the practise of giving customers a free sample is one that has at the least existed for centuries. As an aside, we specifically wanted to mention this example becase Piers Plowman is also noted as being the first known work of English fiction to refer to Robin Hood.

In any event, while it is true that nobody knows what intrepid businessman or woman first gave away free samples to potential customers, we do know the man who popularized it in more modern times as a remarkably effective way to entice customers- Benjamin T. Babbitt.

Born in early 19th century, Babbitt was a famed inventor and entrepreneur who became one of the wealthiest and well-known men of his era thanks to a combination of his business savvy and flair for advertising. Babbitt mostly made a name for himself in the soap industry, but held patents for everything from gun barrels to steam engines- a bit of a renaissance man.

Though respected as a prolific and skilled inventor (he is credited with inventing many of the machines in his own factories, in addition to owning the factories that made those machines), it’s Babbitt’s ideas when it came to marketing and advertising that really set him apart from his peers, and made him a household name for a time.

For example, Babbitt is credited with being the first person to package and sell soap in individual bars, which he would sell from garishly colored, impossible to miss street cars that were followed around by musicians singing about how great his soap was. On top of all that, to make the bars themselves as noticeable as possible, Babbitt spent a great deal on attractive, colorful packaging, making him one of the first people to recognise the potential of packaging in relation to selling a product. On top of this, knowing that the idea of individual bars of soap was a novelty to the public, Babbitt gave away thousands of bars for free, in special packaging bearing a simple tagline reading, “A fair trial is all I ask for it”.

As to his motivation for giving away thousands of dollars worth of product, Babbitt was aware of how fickle the public can be and that customers will, more often than not, buy the brand they know and have used their entire lives and be unwilling to try something new. Thus, to get his product in their hands, simply giving it to them free seemed the best way possible to at least, as he put it, get “a fair trial”.

Along with offering customers free samples, Babbitt made extensive use of other (at the time) radical advertising techniques such as slogans- his soap famously bore the inscription “Cleanliness is the scale of civilization” on their packaging. He also offered customers a tour of his factories, which of course ended with a gift of free samples for customers to try.

Babbitt further made sure that his likeness was a consistent theme in much of his advertising, essentially becoming one of the first company mascots. At the height of his fame, Babbitt’s name was so ubiquitous in households across America that there’s a famous, possibly apocryphal, story about Babbitt meeting a shoeshine who just so happened to be called B.T Babbitt. When Babbitt informed the boy that his name was also B.T Babbitt, the boy curiously inquired: “Did your momma get your name off a soap box too?”

Though he was by no means the first to think of giving customers a free sample of a product, the scale to which Babbitt did it and how famous he became for it, along with other marketing techniques, ultimately saw a massive and very well documented upswing of the practice across the business world.

For example, between 1894 and 1913, Coca-Cola relied heavily on free samples to get the word out about their new product, usually mailing out coupons to drug stores and random customers. The company estimates that during the 20 year period, 1 in 9 Americans were given a free drink on them in this way, which was a huge reason for the company’s early growth compared to the countless competitors making similar product at the time.

However, perhaps no one directly after Babbitt is more representative of the power of free samples than a man whose free samples ended up becoming his #1 product not once, but twice, with his original products ultimately being scrapped because of it. So let’s talk about William Wrigley Jr. shall we.

As a boy in Philadelphia in the late 1860s, Wrigley gained a reputation for being a bit of a prankster and a rebel. After running away from home then getting expelled from school on his return, he was sent to work in his father’s soap factory. Young Wrigley soon extricated himself from the daily grind which involved stirring the vats of soap, and by the tender age of 13 he became a soap salesman for his father instead. As a salesman, Wrigley found his niche, showing a flair for sales and advertising (a true son of the soapbox) that would become rather legendary after he branched out to form his own company William Wrigley Jr. Company in Chicago in 1891.

Most popular accounts of Wrigley’s origin say that he only had $32 in his pockets when he founded his now world famous company. Whether that’s true or not, he had other money besides what fit in his pockets- a huge amount of it actually, as his uncle gave him a check for $5,000 (about $130,000 today) to help get his new company up and running.

That business was not gum, however. Wrigley started out by doing what he knew best- much like Babbitt before him, selling soap. Also copying Babbitt in a certain way, he added an innovative twist that was representative of an approach that would have a far reaching impact on his future. Since merchants resisted carrying his goods due to the low profit margins and high amount of competition, Wrigley borrowed a page from Babbitt’s soap selling exploits by giving them free stuff. These freebies ranged from umbrellas to baking powder. As cake baking methods had changed in the mid-19th century and baking powder was a big part of that, it was no surprise that sales took off.

With the baking powder itself being a huge hit as a freebie and becoming more requested than his soap, Wrigley moved on from specializing in soap to instead baking powder, but still continued to offer freebies. This time around, it was baking powder with free chewing gum thrown in. Soon, the chewing gum was eclipsing the baking powder in popularity.

Adaptable as ever, Wrigley abandoned baking powder for selling chewing gum, the product that the company is famous for today. The gum Wrigley was selling in the 1890s was manufactured by Zeno Company. Distinguishing the product a bit, Wrigley recommended that Zeno use chicle to make the gum instead of the paraffin and spruce that were the traditional ingredients of the day. Then he focused on expanding chewing gum’s appeal to a younger demographic. Wrigley started with Vassar and Lotta gum and by 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition introduced a sweet, fruity flavor that is still one of the big names in the chewing gum business today, Juicy Fruit (more on where exactly the “juice” in Juicy Fruit is supposed to come from in the Bonus Facts in a bit). A few months later, he rolled out Wrigley’s Spearmint.

For the rest of the decade and into the 20th century, William Wrigley wore his promoter hat with vigor, traveling across the country again and again. He didn’t discontinue the premium offers though, combining gum with other items like lamps, pocket knives, fishing tackle and measuring scales. Understanding that purchasers bought gum impulsively, he also proposed placing the gum display cases in a place that is very familiar to us today – beside the checkout counter – and retailers agreed.

By 1907, when the country was grappling with a financial crisis and other gum manufacturers were cutting costs, Wrigley literally bet his life savings on his then fledgling company, mortgaging everything he owned and buying $250,000 (about $6.2 million today) worth of advertising. This was the springboard from which he launched his company to nationwide fame. His competitors’ sales stagnated, while his soared with Wrigley Spearmint’s sales alone jumped to more than $1 million a year following the ad blitz. In total, the general sales for the company leapt from $170,000 to $3 million (about $75 million today).

Wrigley didn’t stop there. He bought out Zeno by 1911 and by 1915 grabbed the title as one of the biggest advertisers in the country. But he wasn’t just using billboards and other traditional forms of advertising. For instance, in a huge marketing and sales frenzy, Wrigley mailed free gum to every address listed in US telephone directories. Later, he adopted a similar strategy by sending two sticks of gum to every child on his or her second birthday. All total, Wrigley’s sticks of gum, which now included the newly introduced Doublemint flavor, were shipped to over 1.5 million addresses in 1915 and to about 7 million homes in 1919. Also in 1915, Wrigley hired writers to re-write various Mother Goose rhymes such that they advertised Wrigley’s gum and then ultimately gave away a whopping 14 million copies of this book.

That same year, Wrigley wanted to offer stock to his employees so took the company public. Capping off a remarkably successful career, Wrigley became chairman of the board and turned the presidency over to his son, Philip in 1925, ultimately passing away in 1932 at the age of 70 with an estimated net worth of $34 million or about $582 million today.

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Bonus Fact:

Ever wonder what the “juice” in “Juicy Fruit” is supposed to be? Now you’d think that answering this question would be as simple as picking up a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and reading the ingredients list, but as with most things in life, we discovered it’s just not that easy. For starters, the ingredients listed on a pack of Juicy Fruit are incredibly vague; the only real piece of useful information you can glean from a pack itself is that the gum contains “Natural and artificial flavors”. Helpful…

This also isn’t helped by the fact that Wrigley are similarly coy about discussing what goes into their product, often choosing to refrain from mentioning any specific fruit in regards to its flavour and excusing this evasive behaviour by stating that the flavour is a trade secret.

That said, with a little digging, you’ll find that, in the past, Wrigley has explicitly said that Juicy Fruit contains notes of “lemon, orange, pineapple and banana” in response to emails from curious customers asking for more specific information about Juicy Fruit’s flavour. Again though, this isn’t entirely helpful in discerning whether or not the gum actually contains fruit juice, since (always awesome) science has made it possible to synthesize almost any flavour we want.

Curiously, there is a fruit out there known to taste almost exactly like Juicy Fruit- a lesser known fruit from the shores of Africa and Asia known as Jackfruit. Jackfruit tastes so much like Juicy Fruit gum that it is often one of the first things mentioned when it’s discussed by Western media and there is a small, but nonetheless dedicated subset of people who believe that it is the key secret ingredient in the gum.

However, although Jackfruit tastes like Juicy Fruit gum, this isn’t because Juicy Fruit contains any juice from the Jackfruit (a dead giveaway being that there are no records of Wrigely importing the fruit or juice). The real reason the two taste and smell so similar is because they both (probably) contain a chemical called, isoamyl acetate. The reason we have to say “probably” is because, as noted, Wrigley won’t confirm what exactly goes into making Juicy Fruit, which is their right as a company, but experts are still pretty sure that isoamyl acetate has something to do with Juicy Fruit.

One of the most compelling arguments for isoamyl acetate being the primary flavouring agent behind Juicy Fruit is that, like Jackfruit, the chemical is said to smell very similar to it. Even in literature that doesn’t mention Juicy Fruit by name, isoamyl acetate is said to have an indistinct, almost indescribably “fruity” smell that contains hints of banana, peach and other similar sweet fruits, which is pretty much the exact same way people who haven’t eaten Jackfruit describe Juicy Fruit.

Making this argument even more tantalising is that, historically, one of the few ways to obtain isoamyl acetate in commercially viable quantities was as a by-product of whiskey production. When Wrigley first began producing Juicy Fruit gum in 1893, they did so from a factory in Illinois, the biggest whiskey State in America at the time. Suggesting that, perhaps, Wrigley sourced isoamyl acetate, and hence Juicy Fruit’s unique flavour, from the many factories producing whiskey nearby.

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence of all about Juicy Fruit’s flavour being the result of artificially created chemicals instead of real fruit is that they themselves used to explicitly advertise the “artificial flavor” of their product as a unique selling point up until a few decades ago. You see, early packs of Juicy Fruit starting around the 1940s carried the slogan “The Gum With the Fascinating Artificial Flavor” which they used as a way of enticing customers to try it.

It is only in recent years, with the trend to avoid artificial chemicals in consumables, that Wrigley has shied away from advertising the fact that Juicy Fruit’s unique flavour is, in all likelihood, the result of artificially created chemicals rather than a cocktail of chemicals directly extracted from fruit.

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