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Competition Coupon Madness
Behold the power of boxtops!

"Our lieutenant is the up-and-coming type.
Played with soldiers as a boy you just can bet.
It is written in the stars
He will get his captain's bars,
But he hasn't got enough box tops yet."
Tom Lehrer, "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier"

There are promotions in Real Life by companies that work like this: On each package of the product there's a coupon, you collect X coupons, send them in, and win a prize. X may be a reasonable number, but can also be ridiculously high. Often used to gauge and improve customer loyalty. A common marketing trick.

Sometimes, this works like a lottery: Your chance of winning increases if you send in more coupons.

In fiction, the first prize is something the protagonist really wants; like an all-inclusive holiday in Hawaii for the whole family. Hilarity Ensues when:
  • The protagonist buys so many cans/packages of the product that it fills his house.
  • The family is seen eating nothing but the product, implying that they spent all their money for it. (Maybe even more than the prize is worth.)
  • The protagonist goes to extreme measures to acquire yet another pack of the product when he finds out he has exactly 9,999 coupons and needs 10,000 of them.
  • The protagonist doesn't get the prize he wanted, but instead... a month's/year's/lifetime's supply of the product.

Compare and contrast Free Prize at the Bottom. The most literal type of Plot Coupon.

Examples:

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     Comic Books  
  • Seen several times in Donald Duck comics, including one Don Rosa story.
  • In the Dennis The Menace (US) comic book story "Dennis vs. Television", which was also translated into Spanish, Dennis collected cereal box tops without actually buying the cereal, hoping to win a big prize.

     Film 
  • In A Christmas Story, Ralphie collects label after label from containers of Ovaltine, coming to hate the stuff, but drinking it anyway because he knows if he collects enough labels he'll get that coveted Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. When he finally gets the ring and decodes the secret message, he discovers that the message reads: Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.

     Literature  
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel: Clifford Russell enters a Skyway Soap contest with the grand prize of a trip to the Moon. Each soap wrapper sent in counts as an entry. He wins a used spacesuit, and as a result ends up going on an adventure that takes him to the Moon...and beyond.
  • In the Dorothy Sayers novel Murder Must Advertise, Lord Peter Wimsey comes up with a marketing campaign based on this scheme while working undercover in an advertising agency.
  • There's a book of short stories - if some other editor remembers, please insert its name - where in one of them there's a prize for the best entry on why they like the sponsor's product, which is cod liver oil. Well, the dog likes it, and the kid who wants to win pretends to be the dog by claiming that's his name. A rep from the manufacturer comes to see them because his was the only entry that claimed the actual person entering liked it (all the others said someone else, other than that person, did) and has brought some cod liver oil with him to see the contest winner actually drink the product. Calling out the kid's "name" - which is actually the dog's name - keeps making the dog come over, and the kid can't pretend that the awful tasting liquid is delicious. So he doesn't win the first prize, but does win the second. A six months' supply of cod liver oil.

     Live Action TV  
  • An episode of Brit Com The Worker, starring Charlie Drake, has his character buying hundreds of boxes of cereal so he can find a Golden Ticket to a prize contest. He then spends weeks training for the contest until he's fully confident of winning but shows up on the wrong day.
  • In an episode of Victorious, the main characters buy a ridiculous amount of ice cream, in order to win a free Ke$ha concert.

     Music  
  • Tom Lehrer's "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier" parodies this, or rather parodies the military's staffing standards of the time through the medium of this trope. An up-and-coming young Lieutenant is said to be destined for a promotion to Captain... Once he collects enough boxtops.

     Newspaper Comics  
  • Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes once sent in coupons for a propeller beanie. In his case, the biggest problem was that he had no patience waiting for it to arrive in the mail. Also, he is disappointed to find once it arrives that he can't use it to fly.

     Video Games  
  • In Ace Attorney Investigations, Colias Palaeno, the Ambassador of Babahl, keeps handing out coupons in order to drum up tourism — they can only be redeemed in Babahl.
    Palaeno: Would you like some more ink? I've got plenty!
    Edgeworth: Ah... thank you, I shouldn't need any more.
    Palaeno: Oh... in that case, let me make it up to you with some coupons!
    Edgeworth: I-I have plenty of those, too! (Where is he conjuring them up from?!)

     Western Animation  
  • Just a throw-in joke and not a story line, but here's an obligatory Simpsons example:
    Bart: Nice jacket!
    Milhouse: Thanks, it cost me 50,000 Bazooka Joe comics!
  • In "Girl of Steal" from My Life as a Teenage Robot, the Cool Toy is the Musique. Tucker wants one so badly that he steals box tops from everybody in the neighborhood then brings them to the Musique store and has a fit when the store manager tells him he has to send the box tops in and wait for the Musique to arrive in the mail.
  • In the Angry Beavers episode "Box Top Beavers", Dag picks brands of cereal that have cheap toys in the box, while Norb picks brands of cereal that give you cool toys for sending in the box tops. When Dag decides to go for the cool prize (a street sweeper), and finally finishes eating 10,000 boxes of cereal, he finds out that the sponsors have discontinued the promotion, and the brothers infiltrate the factory to get the prize.
  • An episode of The Raccoons has Bert attempting to win a bike by putting together a jigsaw puzzle from pieces that come in a brand of crisps (not knowing that Cyril Sneer deliberately left out one piece of the puzzle so no one can win). Hilarity Ensues.
  • On Rocky and Bullwinkle, Boris and Natasha produce counterfeit box tops to get all the prizes and undermine the world's economy. General Mills (which not only sponsored the show, but owned it outright) was not amused and forced the producers to end the story earlier than planned.
    • The drama in that arc is that Bullwinkle had an impossible number of legit box tops because he 'couldn't decide what to get.'
    • Most of Bullwinkle's legit box tops were inherited from his uncle. When arrested as a suspect of being the counterfeiter, he was asked why he didn't register them at his tax forms.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants had our titular character devouring 100 boxes of Kelpo Krunch practically all at one sitting, all in order to get the box tops needed to send in for a free toy. He then realizes he didn't necessarily have to eat all the cereal in the aforementioned boxes.
  • In Hey Arnold!, Arnold and Gerald need to collect 50 cereal box coupons to earn a children's telescope so they can see an upcoming passing comet. Since they collected half of the coupons, they invite their friends and neighbors for the remaining cereal.

     Real Life  
  • Burma-Shave once offered a mock promotion that promised a trip to Mars for anyone who collected 900 empty jars. When Arlyss French, a grocery store owner, managed to actually collect them, Burma-Shave responded, "If a trip to Mars you earn/Remember, friend, there's no return." After French collected another 900 jars for the return trip, they decided to go ahead and send him to Moers, Germany. French was happy about the trip, and Burma Shave was happy about the good publicity generated from the deal.
  • They still have these. Labels for Education, Coke Points/Pepsi Points, Camel Cash... A variation is/was "Green Stamps", which you could earn in several different places and then redeem for stuff.
  • In 1999, California engineer David Phillips did the math and found that a particular promotion, in which a food company offered airline frequent flyer miles in exchange for inexpensive food purchases, was a phenomenally good value. For about $3000, he was able to buy enough pudding to redeem for over a million airline miles—enough to fly just about anywhere, first class, dozens of times over. And he donated the food to charity, and he got an $800 tax break for the donation.
  • An urban legend tells of a promotion run by Pepsi where sending in 10,000 labels off of 2 liter bottles would get you an F-16 fighter jet. According to the story, this was a joke, because they didn't expect anyone to collect that many labels. The story tells that Pepsi got into serious legal trouble when a man presented them with the required 10k labels and demanded to know "Where's my fighter jet?"

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