Saturday, October 10, 2015

Striking Images: Matchbook Advertising

I love listening to Under The Influence, Terry O'Reilly's show about advertising, but I missed this old episode about the history of matchbook advertising and only came across it today. I remember seeing ads on matchbooks but didn't know that this was once the top advertising medium in North America.

From big beer and tobacco companies, to the war effort, to Hollywood, to the smallest Mom & Pop businesses, matchbook advertising was effective and affordable for everyone. But I bet you didn't know that, as recently as 2001, the State Department used matchbook advertising to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

In the mid-1980s the U.S. State Department launched the "Rewards For Justice Program" which offered a reward of up to $5 million dollars for information that would lead to bin Laden's arrest and conviction. They marketed the bounty in various mediums including posters, radio, the internet....and matchbooks.

Original bin Laden reward matchbook.

Alas, the matchbook ad campaign was a total failure. A zero was left off the reward amount- it said $500,000 instead of $5 million. The tips website was incorrect and produced an error message. Also the matchbooks were green, a colour Muslims associate with Islam, so many Afghans would interpret it to mean bin Laden was a Holy Man.

Two and a half trillion matchbooks with advertising on their covers were printed since 1892 but matchbook ads met their demise in 1974 with the advent of the BIC disposable lighter. Read more about the history of this advertising medium here.

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