Let me start by splitting hairs.
Frequently, publicity gets referred to as free advertising. This is a common misunderstanding. There is an important distinction between advertising and publicity. You pay for advertising and you control the content. With publicity, you don't have to pay (it's articles and shows about your product) and you have no control over the content. It is the journalist who writes what he wants -- good or bad.
However, this just happens to be a story about free advertising.
It takes place during my ice cream days. We were trying to get into supermarkets and compete head to head with Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. In taste competitions, we always beat them. Journalists would ask why and I would explain that both Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's were French-style ice creams that used egg yolks in their recipes. Since I objected to the sulphury taste of egg yolks and felt it overshadowed the subtlety of delicate flavors like vanilla and fruit, I didn't use eggs. While my ice cream was as rich and as dense as my two major competitors, my ice cream had a clean, pure dairy taste that enhanced subtle flavors. I would tell journalists that I believed ice cream came from cows, not chickens.
In our efforts to get placed in supermarkets we signed up to exhibit at the FMI convention held in Chicago. FMI stands for Food marketing Institute and they would hold these humongous conventions for supermarket executives who would come from all over the world. This particular year, McCormick Place was the venue. If you have never been there, suffice to say that the exhibition space is large enough to have all National Football League games played simultaneously and there would still be room for several college games as well.
Nearly every manufacturer who sells wares through supermarkets puts on a display. And no one skimps. Floor space is exorbitantly expensive and some large food concerns don't hold back. Companies like Coke and Pepsi construct breathtaking architectural and technological wonders. Some companies (Budweiser, for example) put on stage shows in their exhibits featuring the characters from their popular television commercials. Other companies featured sports figures or movie/television personalities. Wheaties, for instance, had some well-known Olympic gold medalists in its booth. Playboy magazine had its Bunnies and Playmates. And not to be outdone, Penthouse had its "whatevers."
And everyone serves food and/or drink. Even if you are extremely particular about what you eat, you'd more than satisfy your hunger even if you ate just one bite-sized free sample per booth. I am a fussy vegetarian and I was so full at the end of the afternoon I didn't want to think about dinner.
Now, into this arena of excess, marched the "juggernaut" from The Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company. We could not afford even the smallest booth space for ourselves but fortunately we had been invited by the state of Iowa to be in its "Taste of Iowa" booth . This booth wasn't on the main exhibition floor but on a subterranean floor of an auxiliary building. It definitely was far removed from the main action. We ended up sharing this space with two popcorn companies, one barbeque sauce company, and a fruit cake baker from Nebraska.
We had five feet of frontage.
Even given its poor (and tiny) location vis a vis the big manufacturers, we still had plenty of traffic since most executives toured the entire show. Unfortunately, when they finally got around to us, they were so totally over-stimulated, over-titillated, overwhelmed, jaded, satiated, and carrying their overloaded stomachs around in wheelbarrows so the idea of eating another bite, even if this was the premiere taste sensation of the entire show, was abhorrent to these guys.
So, how did we compete in this high dollar and high glitz environment?
It turns out that concurrent with the expo were presentations on various aspects of the supermarket industry to large audiences. The speakers for those presentations were the same executives we wanted to contact. So instead of standing in our booth and trying to entice passers-by to taste our ice cream, we wrote letters of invitation to each speaker to come and visit us and guaranteeing them that just a taste of our ice cream was worth the trip.
Now here is the best part. We then went to a Federal Express box, commandeered a stack of cardboard envelops, addressed them to each speaker, and just before any presentation was to about to begin, we hand delivered the FedEx letter. It created quite an impact. Most presenters were tickled by the chutzpah and cleverness of our approach and actually visited us.
Whatever bad karma I incurred for taking those envelops, I'm sure I've repaid many times over in the high prices I've paid FedEx for subsequent deliveries.