Sometimes, "Too Good To Be True" Is Not True

by Paul Michael on 2 March 2010 2 comments
Photo: Joe_Potato

How many times have you heard people say “if it look’s too good to be true, stay away from it” or words to that effect? Well, I know I’ve said them often myself. But sometimes, rarely, there really is a deal that’s a steal. Case in point — pudding cups and airline miles.

You may have heard the story before, or perhaps recall the plotline from Punch Drunk Love. It’s a real story, and it’s completely accurate. For those of you not in the know, here’s the rundown.

Davis Phillips, a civil engineer, was walking through the supermarket when he spotted a promotion that seemed too good to be true: “Buy 10 Healthy Choice products and get 500 airline miles — or 1000 miles for purchases made before June 1999.”

David spotted the cheapest Healthy Choice product, chocolate-fudge pudding cups, and figures that at 25 cents each, $62.50 worth would net him 25,000 miles.

However, what if he bought all the pudding he could get his hands on? What would that net him? $3000 and 12,150 pudding cups later, he had his answer. He arranged for a local charity to pull the bar codes off the pudding cups, and in return he donated the puddings to the charity. David wanted the miles, not the desserts. And as this was a donation, he got an $800 tax break. That makes $2200 for over 1.25 million air miles! Not too shabby.

I checked Snopes and it’s 100% true. David Phillips pulled it off, but he wasn’t done there. He spotted a deal called Latin Pass, which offered 1 million miles for flying 10 Latin American airlines and completing several other requirements by July 1. "It almost pencils out to a better value than the pudding," said Phillips.

Now, is this the only instance of an amazing offer that really was an amazing offer? No, not at all. Sometimes, they require you to jump through hoops or do the seemingly impossible (“boss, no one would ever buy 12,000 pudding cups!”) or they’re counting on you not to get off your butt and do something.

Sometimes, it’s a fatal miscalculation. Case in point, several years ago there was a Hoover promotion that was also in the “too good to be true” category. Hoover was giving away free round-trip tickets to Europe (and later, the USA) for purchases of one hundred pounds or more. After checking the small print, people realized it was a genuine offer. Hoover hadn’t figured on savvy customers buying a vacuum cleaner just for the deal, which was worth way more than the product itself. In this case, Hoover did not make good on its promise, as too many people took them up on the offer. It resulted in legal battles, 50 million pounds in legal fees, and Hoover eventually being sold to Candy. All because the promotions department couldn’t do the math.

So, what is the moral of this story? Should you now let down your guard at every amazing offer? Well, no. But you should also listen to your gut instinct now and again. David realized, on the spot, that this was a deal that would give him money for nothing. But he didn’t run head-first to the ATM, drawing out his cash and buying the pudding before doing any more calculations. He checked the rules, did the math, and made sure he was eligible for the miles. Then he pounced.

I urge you to do the same. When your gut tells you to pay attention to a deal, do it. You may spend a few minutes wasting your time in a glut of fine print. But you may also find a loophole that nets you a cool 1.25 million air miles.

Go on. Get lucky.

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Guest's picture
Guesty

Same deal with Dollar coins from the US mint for awhile when they offered free shipping.

Buy coins at face value & free shipping, get points on CC, turn in coins at bank. Repeat until US mint figured it out (or its people finished making their own bucks on the deal).

Eh, always one has to count the cost in time and effort for these deals. But sure they exist.

The 'free money' deals just die quicker because of the increased speed that info flows to the population via the tubes.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

the mint deal lasted for a while...until banks started reporting that people were depositing coins with boxes marked U.S. Mint on it.  It's pretty hilarious.