You Never Know What Someone’s Willing To Give You Til You Ask

david-sipress-a-woman-looks-into-a-restaurant-window-that-has-a-sign-reading-free-glute-new-yorker-cartoonI had never heard of this! Had you? Tom Locke’s $39 experiment from 2006.

The way I looked at it, if I took $39 and went to buy groceries, I wouldn’t be able to get all that much. On the flip side, if I took $39 to a casino and lost it all, I wouldn’t be all that upset. With that said, I decided I was going to try something — I was going to take my roll of stamps and send 100 letters to 100 different companies, asking for free stuff. I figured that I couldn’t do any worse than blowing the $39 at a casino, and who knows … maybe a few of these places would actually send me something good.

Did he end up getting more than $39 worth of free stuff? Patience, my little tree frog. The process of trying to find 100 different companies to send letters to was as interesting as the result.

most of the products I picked up had the company’s city, state, and zip code on them, but no actual address. When I was lucky enough to find a product with an address on it, it ended up being an address I already had — 90% of the products in my bathroom were made by either Colgate-Palmolive or Procter & Gamble, and most of the stuff in my kitchen was made by Kraft, Nestle, or Hershey. It became obvious pretty early that finding 100 products around my house with 100 different addresses wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it was going to be.

This was 10 years ago. Imagine what corporate conglomeration has achieved since then! Anyway, Locke ends up broadening his criteria because, as he puts it, “this experiment was less about getting free stuff and more about seeing which companies would actually send me free stuff.” 

Because he has an organized mind, Locke created a spreadsheet to track the companies he queried, the outcome, and the text of the letter he used. No generic emails for this guy! He wrote specific, tailored notes to each company to accompany his ask. As a former Development manager I can confirm for you that that is good practice.

Here is one of his letters that did not get a positive response:

“Dear Sir or Madam:
Please send me a free sample of every Kraft product made. If you are hesitant to send highly perishable items like cheese, I fully understand. I’ll take whatever you have. Thank you.
Tom Locke, food enthusiast”

You can kind of understand where that failed, right? Here, by contrast, is one of his letters that did work.

“Dear Sir or Madam:
I love tea, and I especially love your tea. Do you make an English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, or Earl Grey flavor? These are flavors I’ve not seen made by Celestial Seasonings. Also, would you please be so kind as to send me samples of some of your best teas? I’ve had many, but certainly not all! Thank you very much!
Tom Locke, tea enthusiast”

According to his spreadsheet, Celestial Seasonings sent him “three teabags and three coupons for free and discounted tea.”

Some companies that I think of as “friendly” did not prove to be, at least not in response to this specific kind of petitioning. Neither Trader Joe’s nor Subway sent anything, not even a coupon. (Quizno’s said “no” too.) Other purveyors of fine food were more amenable, though, including Dairy Queen and Chicken of the Sea. S.C. Johnson sent him a coupon; Gillette did not. Avis sent him a coupon; Hertz did not. It’s hard to discern a pattern except in certain clear cases: for example, all the hotels he contacted turned him down. Don’t look to hotels for freebies, I guess.

What’s not hard is being amused by his occasionally screwball tactics and impressed by his chutzpah.

Dear Stacy:
What MilkBone is to dogs, Stacy’s Pita Chips is to humans, and I mean that in a good way! When I eat your pita chips with my lunch, my teeth feel clean! No other wimpy chip does that. It must be all of those rough, abrasive, micro pita molecules bashing the slime off of my teeth. Anyway, do you have a free sample or two you could send my way? I’ve only had your original flavor, but I’m sure you have others, and I’m dying to try them. Thank you very much!
Tom Locke, clean teeth enthusiast

Dear Sir or Madam:
I am writing to you to tell you that I don’t care what they say about you! I’ve heard people call your burgers “sliders”, implying that that they “slide right out”. I’ve never had a problem of that caliber with your mini morsels of goodness. They certainly “slide in” just fine, and I like it like that. Any chance of sending me a coupon for a free burger, or a free sack of ten, or something? I can’t get enough of your burgers. I wish there were more of your establishments in my area. Thank you in advance,
Tom Locke, tiny burger enthusiast

RESULTS:

“We ended up receiving more than 60 responses and ended up receiving free stuff from 35 companies totaling roughly $275 — not a bad return on our $39 investment (unless you factor in my time — then I’m still deep in the hole!)” He auctioned off everything he got and gave the proceeds to the American Heart Association.

Best of all, though, his website documenting this experiment has been visited millions of times since he put it up. It’s been a reliable source of passive income for him. According to an interview with Locke in 2013, he has made over $30,000 from the endeavor. Not bad indeed.

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