'I Can't Stand Jack Benny' Contest Received 277,104 Entries

A photo of Jack Benny sitting on a table as four women look at letters submitted to the I Can't Stand Jack Benny contest in 1946
Jack Benny with judges in the I Can't Stand Jack Benny contest

So you tore off a carton top? Visualizing thousand-dollar bank notes, shiny new automobiles and post-war electric refrigerators, you were a "goner"' before the announcer's pear-shaped vowels reached "in twenty-five words or less."

On the back of the cart top you detailed in pulsating prose why you simply cannot exist without Fluffo Flakes. With fingers crossed, you dropped it in the corner mailbox and went home to wait for the postman.

But he didn't ring -- with your prize parcel. So you became a skeptic. All contests were crooked. They probably were won by a nephew of the sponsor from Dubuque. Your letter wasn't even read. At least, that's the way you sized it up. Want to know what really happened to your entry after it left your trembling fingers and what were its mathematical chances of copping a prize?

First, consider your chances. If it was an average contest, it drew at least 100,000 entries. So right at the start the odds against you winning first prize were 100,000-to-1. And they weren't much better for you to place or show.

Do you have any idea of who might have judged your entry? It could have been anyone of five: the personnel of the program about which the contest was held, the station or network carrying the program, the program's sponsor, the advertising agency handling the sponsor's account, or, finally, an outside organization.

Usually the contest is the sponsor's baby. But the chances are that the sponsor won't take on the judging, but toss it in any one of three directions. He could hand it to the program personnel, as was done in the cases of the Jack Benny and Guy Lombardo contests. Or he might push it into the lap of the advertising agency handling his account.

The last alternative is to call in an outside organization specializing in contest- judging, This, usually, is the most satisfactory choice. Chances are if the sponsor makes this choice the call will go to the Reuben H. Donnelley Corp. of New York City, the nation's No. 1 specialist in picking contest winners.

There are other professional judges, but Donnelley is No. 1. Prof. Lloyd D. Herrold of Northwestern university does freelance judging, assembling a staff to judge individual contests on assignment. Elsie Dinsmore does all the judging for the Proctor and Gamble contests.

Donnelley has worked out judging to an exact science. It not only has a trained staff that can handle the largest and most complicated of contests, but the corporation knows how to avoid the headaches that plague the uninitiated. For a fee, Donnelley will take over all the entries, picking them up direct from the post office, guarantee that they are impartially and accurately judged, select any stipulated number of winners, and even mail out the prizes. And if anybody gets mad because they didn't win, Donnelley even will try to placate them with documented evidence showing that it was on the up-andĀ·up.

The Donnelley concern got into contest judging quite unintentionally. Up to 10 years ago they had gone in for such services as conducting surveys, consumer-sampling, handling premium requests, compiling mailing lists, and conducting mail order campaigns. Then a client asked them to judge a contest he was sponsoring. The research department was filled with competent, potential judges, so Donnelley obligingly took it on. The contest went off so smoothly that Donnelley decided to take on judging as another of its services.

The Donnelley staff, which includes 150 college graduates, can in a few weeks go through a million entries. This staff does not stand by waiting for contests to be taken on. but are members of various Donnelley departments and are available when there's judging to be done. If necessary, Donnelley can put 600 judges on a contest.

H. G. Davis, Donnelley manager who originated their judging system, points out that there are so many technical aspects to judging a contest that it poses a major headache for a novice. In addition to the large volume of mail, all entries have to be classified, standards set up for judging the contest, and the post Office, sponsor, and contestants kept satisfied that the contest is being conducted fairly.

Here's what happens to your entry, if the contest you submitted it in happens to be Donnelley-handled. First, it is given a reading by one of the primary judges. The only factors that will eliminate it here are illiteracy, illegibility or an occasional obscene or vicious note. Or if it happens to be a right -or-wrong contest, an incorrect answer will send it into the reject pile.

If it hurdles this initial barrier, your letter detailing why Fluffo Flakes gives you the strength to carry on against even the most grueling odds then goes to the secondary readers, or junior judges, Here the entry gets its first real screening, according to standards set up for judging this particular contest. These standards may give credit for originality or novel slant, or it may penalize for using undesirable words or trite approach.

If your letter survives the junior judges, it then goes to the senior judges, who give it a more severe screening and attach an actual rating, scored point by point. The highest rated entries after this screening go to a group of three or four executives, including Davis, who review the ratings and select the winner.

To insure impartiality, Donnelley often keys the entries, deleting both name and address of contestant so that the reader knows the entry only by such identification as "K69" or "TP4". In keying entries, Donnelley often has them all retyped or photostatted. Such a procedure eliminates the suspicion that the sponsor might arrange to have winners geographically distributed so as to maintain goodwill in all sections.

Davis then sets up the standards, or yardstick, by which entries will be judged. This includes working out a tiebreaker, which is the 25 words or less that you add to your suggested title for a bar of soap, setting forth why you think "Breath of Spring" is the best name. Then, if 500 people send in the same name, the winner can be determined on the basis of the merit of the tiebreaking 25 words or less.

If you stage a nationwide contest, chances are inspectors from the post office department will be around to see you before the contest is many days old. Since the entries pass through the mails, they become of federal concern, and Uncle Sam is interested to the extent that all entries are read and all sponsorial promises kept.

Donnelley's charge for handling a contest varies with the type of material to be judged, but the fee is on a unit basis. It may run anywhere from 10 cents for short letters to 90 cents for entries including objects d'art fashioned from box tops. Anything that adds to the work of the judges, adds to the judging fee.

After a contest is over, Donnelley bales up the entries, all of which have been initialed by the judge who checked them, and sends them to the sponsor for final disposition. It is necessary for entries to be kept for awhile in case a contestant has a beef about the handling of their entry.

Donnelley, for instance, handled the recent Woody Herman contest, a typical box-topper. This contest, with six weekly winners and a final grand winner, called for carton tops of the sponsored product along with 25 words or less on "why I like Woody Herman's music."

Sometimes the "boners" committed by contestants are amusing, but they also have the sobering effect of eliminating the contestant from the running. In the Woody Herman contest, a lot of entries were sent to the wrong address. Instead of sending in a hair tonic box top, one mother sent a snapshot of her four-year-old son. One contestant wrote his 25 words on why he liked the sponsor's product, ignoring the dulcet charm of Herman's music.

Jack Benny handled his own contest, due to the fact that the contest idea originated with him and his writers, and because practically all hands save his press agent advised him against it. Contests, he was told, were to praise the product, not to damn the talent. But Jack figured the radio public could go along with a gag. So he set up a loose organization, headed by Peggy Perrin, wife of one of his script writers. On the basis of early returns, Jack estimated the contest would draw 75,000 letters. By the end of the first week 68,000 had come in. He got a larger place and frantically drummed up a staff of readers, nine on the day shift and eight on the night shift.

By the time the contest closed, Jack and his readers had gone over 277,104 letters, some of them four times. It cost Benny a little more than the $10,000 he gave away to judge the contest, which was tough on a man with Benny's reputed financial philosophy. It must have yanked his heartstrings as well as those of his purse when he had to pay $4 daily on letters sent with postage due.

In case you're determined to win some of that "easy" money, here are a few points to keep in mind. If you don't follow the rules, there's no point wasting the postage. The same holds true if you write illegibly. Keep in mind that you'll be up against thousands of other "easy" money seekers, many of whom will send in entries that would do justice to a $15,000-a-year copywriter. So unless you're willing to take a little time and do a workmanlike job, you'd be better off to put your money on a sweepstakes ticket -- it'll stand more chance of bagging a winner.

Sam Justice in Tune In, September 1946

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