Do you remember the old “Sports Illustrated” television commercials?

They were always fun to watch – with great video clips and photographs packed into 60- or 90-second spot.

And they always offered some type of free gift – a sports blooper video, a football phone or some other premium – if you called the toll-free number and signed on for a subscription.

What was interesting was that the commercials focused almost entirely on the free gift, not the subscription. It was almost as if they were selling the gift and using the subscription as the bonus.

The advertising people figured out (correctly, I think) that the gift was more appealing than the subscription.

By many accounts, these commercials were very successful because they sold a lot of subscriptions – which increased circulation and advertising revenue for the magazine.

But I always wondered: “What does the renewal guy think of all this?”

Here we have all these new subscribers who are signing on not because they want to read the magazine but because they are going to get a free video. What is going to happen when the subscription runs out? Some will renew, of course, but a large number of them will let their subscriptions lapse – probably forever or at least until another new premium comes along

I am not being critical of Sports Illustrated’s approach. Using incentives to build volume on the front end is a reasonable strategy as long as you recognize that you may be paying for it later on.

The bottom line? It’s very easy to get excited about initial response rates, but hold your applause until you have seen how those responses hold up on the back end.


Written by Bob McCarthy

This article may be reprinted without permission as long as the article includes the following credit: Bob McCarthy is a freelance copywriter and consultant specializing in direct marketing and lead generation. His website is He can be reached at 508-473-8643 or by email at

About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."