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December 26th, 2010


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07:17 pm - Scratchcards and friends
We had a quiet Christmas, but it was lots of fun. While Meg and I chose not to exchange gifts, we baked cookies, played games (Can't Stop and Dominoes), watched TV, talked to family and Meg made a brilliant roast beef dinner. A gentle Christmas, but just what we wanted. I hope your day was at least as happy as ours, but it'll have to go some way to match it.

I've been thinking about scratchcards recently. Someone at work won £50 on a £2 Scrabble-themed scratchcard, then (the excellent) Shift Run Stop's Leila pointed to this long web page. The first half contains information about a marketing company's work for Shell, and other clients, mostly over the late '70s and early '80s. It's fascinating. The second half of the page contains links to ongoing legal action and criticism of the company, allegedly inspired by a dispute over one particular campaign. It's less to my taste, but there's enough in the first half to get me thinking.

Apparently scratchcards as such date from the mid-'70s, though there were similar promotions dating back to at least the 1950s and, quite probably, very long before. Pull tabs, which are almost identical in gameplay terms to scratchcards, are at least a little older than them; they are still prevalent in Alaska and might be the only form of the genre permitted by law. It's not too great a stretch to compare both forms to punchboards, which can be traced back to the eighteenth century, though it seems to me to be more of a stretch than I'd like to say "well, they're all lotteries, and lotteries go back to the Romans, or maybe the Chinese before them" - I'm interested in the factor form, the potential for instantly knowing you've won.

I remember UK charity scratchcards from the early '80s. These would be sold for, habitually, 25p (very occasionally less) and often offered five to seven marginally different scratch-off decisions for your money. These days. these are relatively rare, because the National Lottery's scratchcards are so prevalent, though the minimum ticket prize of £1 (with some tickets costing as much as a fiver) is a rather higher stake than I'd like. The Scrabble scratchcard is not untypical; £2 to play, three slightly different decision mechanics, eight decisions and a whopping 64% of ticket fees due to be returned in prizes.

About 2 tickets in 9 win, but 41% of the wins are just the £2 card fee returned, and thus it's only something like a 1-in-8 shot of turning a positive profit. Even among the profitable cards, 25% of the wins are for £3, so it's a 1-in-14 shot of making more than a £1 profit on a £2 card; something like 13% of the wins are for £5, so it's a 1-in-23 shot of making more than £3 profit on a £2 card; half of those wins are only for £10, most of the rest are £20 wins and so on. It's very hard to win serious money; it was something like 1-in-300 against winning £50 or more, as my friend did, and it's about 1 in 3,000,000 against winning the £60,000 jackpot. In short, in the long term, scratchcards that you have to pay are a losing game. Don't buy 'em. They're even bad business compared to most gambling opportunities.

However, I'm not opposed to all scratchcards, just the ones you have to buy. The ones that are given away as promotions are definitely relevant to my interest. Of course they aren't going to be free, as there are the costs of the prizes to recoup, as well as the non-trivial cost of producing the scratchcards; in general, the promoters offering them will recoup their costs somehow, most likely by putting the cost of the things they sell very slightly, but often scratchcards are given away on a "no purchase necessary" basis, so you can get them at no cost in the short term.

There was quite a bit of interesting design that went into scratchcards and related promotions over the years, in a way that doesn't happen now, and the first half of that page has a lot of interesting links. (The "Free Lines" football pools promotion is a particularly neat design, and I enjoyed reading about the Guinness challenges.) Having been born in the UK in 1975, I think I ought to remember rather more of them than I actually do! That article does bring back some memories: I remember Mobil's Scrabble promotion, I remember scratchcards on KitKat wrappers, where you could usually win 1p, and I can remember McDonalds running Trivial Pursuit scratchcards as well. No purchase was necessary; scratchcards offered two questions, each with four multiple-choice answers. Scratch off one answer on whichever question you prefer, with a correct answer earning you a prize: more often than not their smallest drink, burger or portion of fries, to be claimed on a subsequent visit.

The "Bruce's Lucky Deal" promotion is particularly brilliant and quite sophisticated in its own quiet way, by virtue of its "every card can win" premise. The concept is that players scratched off four spaces from a choice of eight, representing playing cards in "Bruce's hand", then another four from a choice of eight in "your hand". Revealing eight cards that were all spades won a £10,000 prize, eight cards that were all hearts won a £100 prize, eight diamonds or eight clubs won a pack of playing cards (which might contain a special card worth £50) and a mix of suits won nothing. Additionally, all eight cards being jacks or higher won a share of a jackpot - £100,000 being split 880 ways in the first fortnight, for instance.

Despite the "every card can win" premise, the operators could make payouts rare; if they were to make only four of the eight cards spades in each hand, it would be a 1-in-70 shot, twice in a row, to reveal eight spades out of eight. I anticipate that cards with potential winning combinations in spades were rather rare in the first place; I would guess that most cards had a possible win in diamonds or clubs, with insufficiently many hearts or spades to win either of those. Scratchcards seem to be reasonably cheat-proof in practice, though other related promotions have occasionally proved flawed in the past; offering shares of jackpots as prizes guarantees a limit on the payout, but not knowing exactly how much you'd win at once is a bit less fun.

There's no good reason why promotional scratchcards couldn't ride again, which suggests that it's probably just a matter of time before they really do. It's not as if there aren't scores of bright young things designing exciting promotional games at marketing companies around the world, but promotions often tend to be virtual; ARGs and apps (Facebook, or choose the mobile phone OS of your choice...) are the flavour of the month that has driven the traditional printed scratchcard slightly out of business. That said, we did get a promotional code printed - almost illegibly, black-on-black, for entirely reasonable security reasons - on the inside of a packet of pricy branded kitchen rolls, which I have checked online and apparently it is worth £10. Must be nice...

Another technique I've seen used (so far exclusively online, though it's not so far from being a variant of the old "caller 96 after this song wins a prize" radio promotion...) to declare a predictable number of entrants to be instant winners of preset prizes, often used for many winners of small prizes, is to randomly select winning times throughout the promotional period and declare that the first entry received after each of those winning times (though perhaps they may "stack", if you get two or more winning times without an entry between them) to be a winner. I'm reasonably confident that you can take advantage of the uniform distribution of winning times and the presumed non-uniform distribution of entries by checking at a time of day when you suspect few checks will be made. (5am local time is good, especially if you're a night shift worker.)

It's possible that that was the technique used on the kitchen rolls, with the codes being used to retrospectively connect winners with winning times, rather than to determine who has a winning packet. It's impossible to tell. The "first after random time" technique is useful to guarantee a fixed number of winners, assuming sufficiently many participants at the correct times, while permitting instant notification of winning. There doesn't seem to be any danger of (significant numbers of) prizes going unclaimed, as there might be if there actually are such things as winning codes, rather than just winning claim times, and it's not easy to see why this would be in the promoter's interest. Has there been a legislation change to require all advertised prizes to be paid out, rather than to permit them to go unclaimed? Is it relevant that the same game was to be played both in the UK and in Ireland, thus had to be adaptable to both jurisdictions?

I do think scratchcards will come back some day, possibly with slight technological twists. After all, loyalty clubs (Nectar, Tesco Clubcard) and the like are nothing but updated versions of Green Shield Stamps. Airlines have long offered frequent flyer scrip in schemes of legendary complexity. While the existence of points, and thus a scoring scheme, does not necessarily create a game - or, at least, an interesting one (see Holly and Margaret, last October), interesting games and game-like promotion schemes have been brought to fruition in the past this way and there's definitely scope for game designers to make them happen again in the future. Brands may well reap the rewards when they do.

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comment count unavailable comments to the post already. Thank you!

 


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