Claim: For every 25 Polar Express e-mails received, Houghton Mifflin will donate a book to a children’s hospital.
Origins: What was meant to be a short-term 1996 holiday season promotion turned into a cybernightmare. Aimed at promoting specific works of one author by giving a predetermined number of his books to children’s hospitals and tying this give-away to
The offer was simple: a copy of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express, Two Bad Ants, or >Ben’s Dream to a children’s hospital or similar institution for every
After originally setting aside 2,000 books for this donation, Houghton Mifflin added another 500 to the giveaway, capped the donation at 2,500, and called it a day.
Okay, so what happened to make everything go crazy? Picture a snowball rolling down a hill; at the top it’s small and it rolls slowly, but with every revolution, it gets bigger and rolls faster. The campaign attracted few
The message of “free books for sick kids” overwhelmed everything else, and the original announcement out of Houghton Mifflin of a limited promotion quickly mutated into an
The mutated message contained no mention of the campaign’s specific start and end dates, the stated maximum number of books available for donation, or even that it was a “holiday season” promotion (which begins to explain why as late as April 1997 what had become the standard exhortation was still showing up on newsgroups). People fired off an endless stream of
Houghton Mifflin’s miscalculation came from running a similar campaign in 1995 — that year 23,000
You would think such an experience would be enough to scare off anyone from trying it again, but you’d be wrong: In 1997 Houghton Mifflin took another run at it. The details that could be found at their Polar Express page provided for the donation of up to one book for every
Barbara “polar bared” Mikkelson
Last updated: 6 October 2007