The Marketing Stunt That Vacuumed Up a Whole Company

In November of 1992, Dave Dixon, a horse trainer from Workington, England bought a washing machine for £560, the equivalent of about £1,100 ($1,200) today. For the next few months, all one can assume is that Dixon and his family were perfectly happy with their new washing machine, but as the summer of 1993 approached, that changed. The washing machine — barely six months old! — broke. So he called a repairman, which Hoover, the manufacturer of the machine, dutifully dispatched. On or around May 28, 1993, the Hoover van arrived on the Dixon’s driveway, its driver ready to get to work.

While the repairman was working on the machine, he and Dixon got into a bit of an argument. The repairman called Dixon an idiot; Dixon, he’d later tell the BBC, replied with “I’m not as stupid as you are. I’m not going to have to walk home.” Dixon, per the Guardian, brought “a horsebox full of steaming manure” behind the van, blocking its exit in a way few people would dare mess with. The repair guy left safely, but the van remained. Dixon had hijacked it.

A week later, the van was still there. The police didn’t care. No one really blamed them. Hoover, most people felt, deserved it. 

The reason? Hoover’s disastrous marketing campaign.

Much of the world was gripped by a recession in the early 1990s and the UK was no exception. Hoover dominated the vacuum cleaner market in the area; as the Los Angeles Times reported, “Hoover’s British operation [had] built the kind of public image that corporations covet. It is known as trustworthy and reliable. And its name is synonymous with the activity of its most popular product. In Britain, you don’t ‘vacuum the carpet.’ You ‘Hoover the carpet.’” With an estimated 50% market share, Hoover probably could have survived the recession. But the downturn created a slowdown in purchasing that the company didn’t anticipate. They were left with a lot of excess inventory — already-manufactured vacuums — that, unsold, was ironically just sitting around collecting dust. Hoover wanted a way to sell these machines.

And because the economy was in recession, Hoover wasn’t alone in having excess inventory. A small travel agency called JSI Travel was operating in the UK and Europe at the time and was having a hard time filling flights for their airline clients. The flights were going from destination to destination anyway, and each unsold seat was an opportunity missed. JSI Travel approached Hoover with an idea, as The Hustle explains: “anyone who spent more than £100 (~$250 USD today) on a Hoover product at a qualifying department store would get two free round-trip tickets to a destination in Europe,” which probably cost around £150 to £200 if you booked them directly. Sounds like a good deal — perhaps too good to be true. But it kind of worked out. The margins on the excess inventory Hoover had was high. The prices of plane tickets were low. Hoover planned to upsell customers who took advantage of the deal on other high-margin products like travel insurance and also to get referral money from hotels.

But just to be sure this wasn’t a big old mess, Hoover also made it cumbersome for most purchasers to claim their free tickets — you need to send in your receipt within two weeks of purchase, then fill out a registration form within two weeks of receiving that, and then send Hoover a proposed itinerary within 30 days after that. These barriers helped limit Hoover’s exposure but it also left a lot of would-be travelers with a vacuum they didn’t really want and without plane tickets. There was a tiny amount of buzz that this was more scam than deal, but thankfully for Hoover, the bad press was rather limited. What Hoover saw, instead, were a lot of vacuum sales, a small number of plane tickets being issued, and no apparent hit to their brand reputation. 

So they expanded the offer, as seen below.

In November 1992, Hoover advertised that, if you purchased a £100 machine, you’d get two plane tickets to the United States — worth an estimated £600. The campaign proved exceptionally popular among consumers. Hoover expected about 50,000 requests for tickets; they received about 300,000. And that was a big problem. The math didn’t work out — Hoover had sold most of its excess inventory by this point and, as The Hustle points out, “on the sale of a £119 vacuum cleaner, Hoover made a profit of £30. The two free fights that came with it were worth at least £600. This meant that each customer who followed through with the promotion cost Hoover £570.” To make matters worse, JSI Travel wasn’t equipped or interested in booking trips to the United States, so Hoover went into the process without a travel partner. And that negative press around the cumbersome redemption process? It was about to explode.

Customers were furious, lawsuits were threatened, and documentary filmmakers were calling. And throughout it all, Hoover was forking out plane tickets at a massive loss. In April of 1993, Hoover fired the president of its European division as well as some of the division’s top marketing leaders, but the bad press and the like kept coming — in large part because the tickets weren’t. And when that Hoover repairman came to Dave Dixon’s house in May of 1993, the repair guy foolishly told the customer (per Dixon), “If you think buying a washing machine’s going to get you two tickets to America, you must be an idiot,” setting off the van hijacking described above.

About two weeks after Dixon took the van, a British court ordered him to release it to the company, which he did. But that was probably Hoover’s only victory in the whole “free ticket” ordeal. Hoover’s reputation in England was irreparably harmed and Maytag, which owned Hoover at the time, sold the UK brand to a smaller company in 1995 at a steep discount. Lawsuits surrounding the “deal” extended into 1998. Maytag was ultimately required to pay up — somewhat. Per The Hustle, “was ordered to shell out the equivalent of $72m on flights for some 220k customers — and even then, another 300-350k never received their offer.” 

Bonus fact: Vacuum cleaners can be great tools, particularly if you’re in the business of cleaning floors or stealing money from grocery stores. Well, not all grocery stores — just Monoprix, a chain in France, and probably not any longer. From 2006 until 2010, the chain was hit by more than a dozen after-hours thefts, and they couldn’t figure out how the thieves were doing it; all the money in their stores was kept in a safe, and there were no signs that the safes had been breached. The culprits, it turned out, had just sucked the stores dry, as The May Sue explained: “[cash was sent to the vault by] cashiers using pneumatic suction pipes, where they slide tubes filled with money. The robbers realized that it was sufficient to drill a hole in the pipe near the [safe], then connect a powerful vacuum cleaner to capture the money stored.” The thieves made out with approximately 600,000 Euros ($800,000) before Monoprix discovered the flaw; as of 2010, the thieves’ identities are still unknown.

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