Sorry, Not an Instant Winner

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Elyse Lanier's Houston Image Group had promised that the city's image in the eyes of the nation would be "changed forever" when the Group unveiled its "Great UnExpectations Game" on September 29. That was the day the taxpayer-funded organization made the momentous announcement that it was staging a promotional sweepstakes offering Time magazine subscribers a chance at unique encounters with noteworthyHoustonians.

Alas, Time readers apparently were not as impressed as the Houston Image Group by the opportunity to win a "gymnastics lesson" with Mary Lou Retton or a "romantic weekend in Houston" or "a cameo in a Tank McNamara comic strip" or even the chance to share "tea for two" with "Sir" Charles Barkley (perhaps they feared the consequences if they accidentally spilled some on His Highness). Almost a month after the Image Group's slick, four-page color ad appeared in the October 13 edition of Time -- the issue with noted celebrity-Buddhist Brad Pitt on the cover -- only one of the magazine's 4.8 million subscribers had bothered to claim any of the 33 instant-winner prizes available through the scratch-off contest.

So is the Houston Image Group embarrassed by the response to its sweepstakes, which, according to the minutes of its August 6 board meeting, required a "$600,000-plus investment" by the Group?

Of course not, you cynic -- as you might expect from an organization that's actually trying to pass the local weather off as inviting, the Image Group isn't conceding that its little giveaway has been anything other than an unqualified success.

"We are definitely not distressed or upset or disappointed," executive director Yolanda Londono said with an apparent straight face when responding to an inquiry from Mr. Expect the Unexpected. "We're delighted with the reception we've received. We're very happy that it was such an innovative project."

Londono claimed that the "Great UnExpectations Game" drew another 600 responses for the "second-chance drawing" portion of the contest. Those entrants, apparently, were Time readers who rubbed the scratch-off box and found the message, "Sorry, not an instant winner. To enter second-chance drawing, see rules on back."

According to those rules, any of the 33 prizes that instant winners have not claimed by February 15 will be awarded in a drawing on March 2. The drawing is open to all who can muster the time and energy to send in a postcard with their name, address and telephone number. The Time advertisement -- which was the brainchild of Houston Image Group's ad agency, Bates Southwest, and cost $200,000 to run, according to Londono -- did not provide a mail-in form for second-chance players.

An independent "fulfillment house" is handling the awarding of the prizes and ensuring that the contest is on the up-and-up. As we went to press, the fulfillment house had not yet confirmed the name of the scratch-off winner or which prize he had claimed, Londono said.

According to no less an expert than Gary Wilcox, who chairs the advertising department at the University of Texas at Austin, the 600 replies to the second-chance drawing is not such a bad rate of return (equal to about one in every 8,000 Time subscribers). But the response to the scratch-off sweepstakes is another matter.

"My reaction is that [these prizes] may appeal to people in Texas," said Wilcox. "But they may not appeal to people in Boise, Idaho, because they're just not interested in Houston. I realize the ad was supposed get people interested in Houston. Maybe it didn't work."

To the contrary, says Londono, who remains optimistic that even more second-chance entries are in the mail -- despite the obviously limited shelf life of a weekly magazine such as Time.

"The object was not to bring in 33 people to Houston and give them a wild ride," said Londono. "The object was to get people to see and observe [the ad] and have the magazine sitting around for two or three weeks in the attic or a drawer and come back out again."

Sure, and Houston's climate is the best in North America.

-- Steve McVicker

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