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George Valassis

It’s a bit of a novelty today, when a coupon is imprinted on a product’s packaging and you have to cut the thing apart to get at the coupon. Occasionally you might even get coupons in the mail, or find them in magazines or in the actual pages of a newspaper.

But isn’t it nice to know that coupons have their very own section of the newspaper, so you can get your hands on plenty without having to hunt and scrounge for them?

You can thank George Valassis for coming up with the idea, some four decades ago.

As part of a weekly series to mark Coupons in the News‘ first anniversary (click here to read other stories in the series), today’s installment of the 40th anniversary of “couponing” as we know it today, looks at the introduction of the ever-popular Sunday newspaper coupon inserts.

Free-standing inserts, as they’re known, began appearing in newspapers in the late 1960’s. But initially, the inserts were just ads and store circulars. Retailers liked them for their convenience and cost savings – they could get their ads in front of millions of consumers, without having to send them through the mail.

So why not do the same with coupons? That’s what George Valassis thought. Valassis was a suburban Detroit printer, looking for ways to keep his printing press running, when he came upon the idea of soliciting companies to promote their products with coupons. Similar to what retailers were already doing with their ad inserts, Valassis made arrangements with local newspapers to distribute the coupon sheets.

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And a business was born.

Technically, the business was born in 1972 when the first newspaper coupon insert appeared. But then that would mess up the whole 40th anniversary premise of this series. So flipping the calendar to 1973 brings another milestone, as the coupon insert went from experiment to fixture. That’s the year that Valassis introduced the first “date schedule”, a list of all the coupon inserts planned for the coming year that’s still issued today.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so others soon got into the game. “There is an impact factor when an advertiser can have his advertising message and coupon delivered to the doorstep of 37 million unduplicated households at the same time,” an executive with competitor Blair Marketing told the Chicago Tribune in 1977, after introducing its own Sunday coupon inserts. “Inserts prove out as a real plus for an advertiser.”

And a real plus for consumers. Blair Marketing is not in the Sunday coupon business anymore, but Valassis’ RedPlum and News America Marketing’s SmartSource still fill our newspapers with billions of dollars worth of coupons every year. And even today, with internet printables and digital coupons widely available, insert coupons still represent nearly 89% of all of the coupons out there.

What did shoppers ever do without them? They may have used coupons, but they sure didn’t “coupon” the way we do today – 40 years, and trillions of Sunday insert coupons, later.

Coming tomorrow: Coupons Go High-Tech – redeeming stacks of coupons was a struggle, before you could just scan them.

Image source: Valassis

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