By on June 21, 2019

If there’s one thing I loved about spending time in the offices of General Managers and dealership principals, it was hearing about the harebrained schemes they had to bring customers into the dealership. GMs see an average of 80 or more vendors every single month — there’s always a new piece of software, a new way to buy inventory, even a new way to wash the windows. Invariably, due to some combination of pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals and the attractiveness of the sales rep, managers would fall for something that would make me shake my rather large head in disbelief.

The tough part was always maintaining a straight face when they told me about their plans. One of my fondest memories was listening to a GM explain that he had canceled all of his third party advertisers and ordered two Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tubemen. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see that the store was out of business 90 days later.

But one of my all-time, tried and true favorites is the “gypsy sale.” Click the jump to see our friend Greg’s question about these direct mail pieces and whether or not they actually work.

Dear Bark,

In my area (greater Charleston SC) there is a dealership that will
mass mail keys at least once a year, and wants you to come to the
dealership and try it on a car they are giving away.  Another one
mails out a confirmation letter that “YOU ARE A WINNER” and compels
you to come to the dealership to claim your prize.

Why do some dealerships run these corny promotions?  Do they ever
really give away any of the prizes (to real people and not to the
owners brother)?  Do these promotions actually drive traffic to the

I’ve always wondered, as I threw my key in the trash, if I was tossing
the WINNING KEY!.  These goofy promotions actually turn me off of the
dealerships.  I just want to purchase a car, not visit a carnival side


Ah, one of my favorite Sunday Stories was based on this idea. I’m sure that all of you have received a few of these over the years — there’s typically some sort of generic-looking key glued to a postcard, with the promise of a chance to win a Brand New Car!!! and some deals that seem too good to be true (until you read the fine print). You probably threw it away, just like Greg did.

But there’s a reason why dealers keep doing them after all these years — they work. Well, kinda.

The biggest problem that the dealer faces with modern advertising is attribution. Back in the day when your local daily newspaper had multiple sections and dozens of pages of ads, it was easy. Prospective customers would see the dealership’s ad in the paper, and they would physically bring the advertisement into the dealership. The sales rep would take the ad and put it in the deal folder to show that the newspaper ad was the lead source. Boom. Done. Easy.

Nowadays? Oh, man. There’s a million lead sources, and it’s virtually impossible to attribute sales to any of them. Why? Well, even though most of them are digital, and should, in theory, be trackable, it’s not that easy. Almost nobody submits leads to the dealership through the web — they just see what they want online and show up at the dealership. (Cue the comments from people who still send emails. You’re the minority.) Therefore, it’s genuinely difficult for even the savviest of dealers to know if what they’re doing for advertising is actually working.

But the postcards? People still bring those in, and in surprising numbers. They typically skew a little more toward toward the subprime side, but that’s fine with most dealerships, because there’s a lot of money to be made in subprime.

The ones with the keys are mostly sent out in advance of  “tent sales” by traveling sales organizations, hence the “gypsy sale” moniker. One sales guy I know calls these sales the “Invasion of the Commission Snatchers.” The dealer pays a hefty sum of money, upwards of $40k or more, to an organization who sends out the cards in advance of the sale and then comes in with a team of pre-screeners, sales guys, hard closers, and F&I guys for the weekend. After they write a bunch of deals that are sketchy at best and illegal at worst, they jump on a plane and head out to lay waste to yet another store. Do they sell a lot of cars? Typically, yes, but it’s a pyrrhic victory more often than not.

But to answer your question — yes, sometimes the keys do actually work. In fact, I was in a dealership in your state, a CDJR store in Myrtle Beach, when a customer’s key started a brand new Chrysler 300S right on the showroom floor. Legally, one of the keys that they send out has to work, but when you send out 20,000 pieces of mail, the odds are literally 1 in 20,000. The gypsy sale organizations will sell you an insurance policy if you like — roughly $5k or so — and if you buy it, they’ll cover the cost of the car on the odd chance that somebody wins. If you don’t, the dealership has to cover it.

Well, the general manager at this CDJR store didn’t buy the insurance. And as the local news station came and interviewed the winner, the poor GM just sat in his office with his head in his hands, knowing that it was probably his last day at the dealership. The sale continued, the bell kept ringing, but he was done (And he was right. The owner fired him the next day).

So there you have it. Yes, the postcards work — but often at a terrible price.


[Image: Gretchen Gunda Enger/Shutterstock]

Send your emails with your questions about buying and selling cars to [email protected], and follow Bark on Instagram @barkmfors. He’ll be your friend if you do. 

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66 Comments on “Ask Bark: Did I Throw Away The Key To A New Car?...”

  • avatar
    David Mc Lean

    And free hot dogs and cotton candy for the kiddies. Hilarious.

  • avatar

    Depending on the wording in the fine print, the actual winner is from THIS mailing OR all the mailings for the year. The gypsies came to my dealership twice. I refused to participate in the first event. The second time my manager told me to sell one or get fired. I felt terrible screwing this family over. But, they were very happy.

    The other thing I hated about the gypsies were that the real staff had to deal with all the pissed off customers after they left town.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Hot dogs and sales events still take me back to my youth when my parents were suckered into a condo time share hustle in branson, and when the pushy salesman was politely told no , he said we couldn’t eat , as the “hot dogs were for serious clients.” It cost maybe 50 cents for 3 starving kids under the age of 10?
    Maybe thats why glengarry glen ross is still one of my favorites .

  • avatar

    Didn’t Jeremy Piven do a movie about one of these “gypsy” sales teams?

  • avatar

    I tried it once, just for the lulz. I didn’t win the car, but I won a “free” Android tablet. Well, free, except for the $79 “shipping and handling”. The actual value of the tablet was $50 at best. I passed.

    • 0 avatar

      The BS antics of these rip-off artists that call themselves respectable dealers.

      Having been associated with that business for more than 30 years I cannot begin to express my disdain for dealers as a whole, and treasure finding a no-nonsense salesmanager in 2008 who understood where I was coming from and shared my perspective of

      “Tell me what you need to sell it for and I’ll either buy it, or I’ll pass.”

      No muss. No fuss. No wasted time for either of us. No games. Just Happy Campers.

      • 0 avatar

        The dealership I worked for one summer in college had a promotion where the mailer told people to come to a reception to collect their prizes, which were invariably German Sterling Silver platters. It turns out that ‘German Sterling Silver’ was a trade name for a product that wasn’t German, that wasn’t German silver, that wasn’t Sterling silver, but was silver in color. Another name for it would be a flatter version of the pan your pre-microwave TV dinner was packaged in. They came stacked in boxes of fifty that were about three inches thick. Anyone who fell for the bait was at least served real booze before being sent off to drive a new Subaru or Chrysler product.

  • avatar

    The dealership I used to work at did the key promotion a few times. It was funny and sad to see so many hopeful people come in with what obviously is not a real key to anything. I mean, come on people, you don’t know what a REAL car key looks and feels like???

    So, being the Best and Brightest who know what a real car key looks like, if you get one in the mail, get to that dealership fast. It will be worth the trip to see them crap their pants.

    • 0 avatar

      I actually got one a few years back that looked pretty real – it looked like the key to my old Buick, matter of fact. Plastic bow and metal blade with actual cuts (and, yes, I did just look up those terms on Wikipedia). I was tempted to try it out, but it was a Mitsu dealer that’s well known for hard-sell antics. Fornicate that noise.

      • 0 avatar

        You should have tried the key in your old Buick. After some use, any key works in the old single-sided GM ignitions.

        • 0 avatar

          ToddAtlasF1….boy did that bring back memories! My high school, back in the early 60s, was right next to a small railroad station where maybe 10 commuters would park each day. For some reason I don’t recall, we found that the key to my 54 Oldsmobile fit the door and the ignition of another GM car parked there every day. So each day for a few days we moved his car a couple of spaces, locked it back up. Of course we were never there when he got home. The last time we did it, we left his car in the same spot….only we backed it in!
          Back then, the trains had “bar cars” and some of the commuters were half in the bag by the time they got to their station, so maybe he never noticed!

    • 0 avatar
      Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

      The mailers I’ve come across have all had “keys” that – while obviously not factory-spec – are presumably sturdy enough to turn a door lock once or twice, which is all they need to do.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t remember what dealer it was anymore, but I got a key from a Chevy dealer about 20 years ago and it looked 100% real. It was brass, cut on a machine, and looked just like my Blazer’s key I had sitting in a drawer long after it was gone. No, I didn’t win, but I did drink a lot of free pop and had about a whole bag of potato chips while I was there. They had a lot of people coming in with those keys. The others I saw all looked fake. So close!

  • avatar

    If anyone wants to make a quick fifty bucks, Hyundai will pay you to go test drive one of their cars. My daughter did that last month and used the money to pay her car-insurance vig to the old man. Thanks, Hyundai!

    (And, yes, she did like the Hyundai she drove – an Elantra hatch – very much, and so did I.)

  • avatar

    You guys have to watch ‘Slasher’ – An early 2000’s documentary on a guy that does exactly this. It was directed by John Landis (yes, that John Landis) It was awesome to see how these ‘sales weekends’ turn out. At least the main guy was more intelligent as the bait offer was an $88 car (amongst the trade-ins) at least you got your doc fees and get rid of a bad car instead of risking giving away a $30,000 car. Check it out when it was covered here:

    • 0 avatar

      There used to be a dealership called Country Style Chevrolet in Ruckersville, VA. The principal was a colorful man named George Rennick, who also had a Buick-Isuzu-Peugeot dealership in Charlottesville. He always recorded his own radio ads. When I was a kid, it would have been easy to believe that his full name was George Rennick Buick.

      His Country Style Chevrolet ads always included something like, ‘and check out our back row of basic transportation starting at $288!’ I checked out the car with the $288 price painted on its broken windshield. It was a VW Rabbit that had been rolled but not repaired. It was also missing its headlights, but there it was in the back row. I wonder if anyone ever walked away from that dealer surprised at the dishonest shafting they’d received? They probably should have seen it coming. I went to look at the $288 car because I’d seen the used cars at his Buick dealer in the city. They were the sorts of things that people only bought to compete in demolition derbies with in the mid ’80s, but he wanted real car money for them.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s very smart, to give away a bad $88 trade in to draw in more people.

  • avatar

    I received a mailer like this once with a fake key and a scratch-and-match game. I scratched it and appeared to have won a free car, one of 5 possible prizes. That seemed unlikely, but there wasn’t much fine print, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to stop by the dealer. Turned out that matching only meant you would win one of the 5 prizes, not the one you matched, and the “activation code” on the mailer had to match one of the secret codes the dealer had for the 4 more expensive prizes, or you only won $2-worth of lotto scratcher tickets. The salesman tried an aggressive pitch for about 5 minutes, but when he realized I wasn’t going to be convinced, he gave me my lotto tickets. I won $2 from one of the scratchers.

  • avatar

    Rule #1 about any scummy looking deal is it must work or they wouldn’t keep doing it. So yes someone is actually sending that Nigerian Prince his payment and waiting for their bank transfer to come thru… any day now. Direct mailing a metal key is expensive compared to other forms of advertising so the profit from this particular promotion must be high enough to offset the cost of mailing keys to thousands of people. This clues you into the epic rip off that must be happening at the “sales event”.

  • avatar

    Those Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tubemen must work, because I sure see a lot of them

    My dad has a pristine 2001 PT Cruiser with just over 40K miles on it that he bought new for my mother, she loves the car to death and will probably be buried in it. Recently they got a promo from a local dealer, “Your trade-in will never be worth more, so bring that old 2001 PT Cruiser in and we’ll give you… $700… toward the purchase of any new car”

    My dad was so insulted that I don’t think he’ll ever buy a car from this dealer again.

    Sometimes promos can backfire

    • 0 avatar

      Well, no one ever said love was rational.

    • 0 avatar

      My favorite dealership postcard was one proclaiming that “We are seeing high demand for cars just like yours!” (This one was from the dealer I bought the car from; even had a picture with the right model, color and body-style on it.)

      “Hello [Dealer]? Yes, do you have any 13-yr-old Passat Wagons with at least 150k and a manual transmission in stock? I *must* have one!”

      Yeah, I’m sure the dealer takes a dozen calls a week like that one!

      • 0 avatar

        Nah, that was just me calling the dealer a dozen times.

        • 0 avatar
          No Nickname Required

          That gives me an idea. When I’m ready to trade in my car I’ll start regularly calling the dealership. “Hello, I’m looking for a 2013 A4 quattro with the 6 speed manual. Do you have one or could you find one for me? I have cash. Oh and by the way, it must be white and have brown leather seats.”

          After a month of calls like that I will show up at the dealership in my white 2013 A4…

      • 0 avatar

        Sir, that sounds suspiciously like the offers of “help” I’m getting from around the country as I assist my sister in selling her 2011 Ford Explorer! “There is very high demand in (insert state here) for your vehicle that we are finding hard to supply! Your 2011 silver Explorer is a unicorn amongst unicorns…unique in every detail, right down to the color that 90% of all Explorers come in! Please let me help you sell it here!” Give me a break.

        Oh, and I can probably guess exactly which dealership chain in Charleston, having spent ten years living in Summerville, SC! I always tossed that key right into the trash heap.

  • avatar

    How many postcard do they send out for the policy of $5k to cover the 1/20k chance?

  • avatar

    Went to a dealership “liquidation” sales event held at a moribund mall parking lot. The whole crew of carnies was there with their camper trailers and Mr. Big Stuff just in from Jersey. A nicotine hag who called herself Sondra greeted us and said she was there to “move some metal” and help us find the right car.

    Great, I said. She says “can we get your driver’s licenses”. I say “No, we want to look first”. Grumble, grumble, she goes to talk with Mr. Big Stuff. He comes over and says in a loud voice that he doesn’t have time to fool around and if we want financing he needs to get that started. We tell him we’re paying cash, and he gives Sondra the look and stomps off.

    She follows us around and we find a decent looking used Caravan with 40K miles. How much (there are no prices on the cars)? She has to check, & walks away. So I look it up online, it was a rental, and the wholesale is $9K -$15K. She comes back and has a coughing fit followed by $29500 — or about $600 less than the price of a frikken brand-new van with full warranty! This pissed me off, and I tell her we’ll pay $10K max, after all this *is* a liquidation right? She brings the offer to Mr. Big Stuff, and he comes back with her. Lays into me shouting that we’re not serious buyers and we’re wasting Sondra’s valuable time. I laughed, and we left him and Sondra to ‘move some metal’.

    • 0 avatar

      These guys come to the fairgrounds near me every year. We got as far as a test drive, but noticed some problems with how the car drove, which were unsurprisingly blown off with “they all do that.” Nope. No, they do not.

    • 0 avatar

      “Nicotine hag!”


      Someone with a voice like Marge Simpson’s sisters, reeking of cigarette smoke and putrid perfume, with makeup applied with a trowel! Got it!

      Don’t walk away from one of these, RUN! Or better yet, don’t be in a position to need one of these “deals.”

  • avatar

    Got one of those things where you pull a tape piece out of a little indicator, and it lit up “winner.” OK, I’ll bite. Was at the local Hyundai dealer, whose principal just screams “slimy car salesman” on looks and mannerisms alone!

    Walked in, wasn’t a winner, but I got a $10 Speedway gift card out of the deal!

    Though I needed a shower when I walked out of that showroom! Fortunately, after putting the phone # into call-block, never have been bothered again!

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Great article Bark! I’m one of those few people who does all my dealing via email and then walk in to the dealership to sign papers or hand over a bank check. It’s been pretty seamless over a number of years and dozens of deals.

    The various websites available for pricing are strong resources, especially CarGurus (where pricing is posted by the dealers); my only critique is that CarGurus doesn’t always check if a dealer is advertising a false price to get to the top of the search. For example, a set of Subaru dealerships from MA pop up with the lowest prices, but only when you go to the dealer website do you find that their prices include your trade worth $2000. New day, new games….

    • 0 avatar

      “I negotiate with several dealers over email and only go into the dealer to sign papers.” So many people say this, and I’ve tried it plenty of times, but I’ve never found a single dealer that will commit to anything in writing over email. They don’t answer at all, or they answer with a canned response, etc. The one thing they never, ever do is negotiate price by email. Either y’all are full of it or dealers behave differently where y’all live.

      • 0 avatar

        Same here. They simply won’t deal, let alone commit to a price, over email. I actually had one (Sunset Chrysler in Sarasota) tell me that the internet price was ‘The’ price, that they don’t put their second best price on their website.

        There was another, nearly identical (but with a color interior I wasnt fond of) for $1300 less at another dealership so, after arguing via text and email, decided to give Sunset one last try in person before buying the cheaper one. The salesman I had been dealing with left early that day but the new salesman I got was exactly the same way. He wouldn’t drop the price a single dime! This is no joke because I actually asked for him to take $50 off, just to see if he’d do it, and he wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t believe it, so I just walked and bought the other vehicle. Would rather have had the other interior but not for an additional $1300.

        • 0 avatar

          I negotiated over e-mail in 2017.

          But I had a trade in; took it to a couple of dealers. Dealer 2 started $1k higher than Dealer 1 on my trade. Test drove the car I wanted then left and started to negotiate over e-mail. Got another $1500 more on my trade and the price I wanted for the new car. (They still made money on my trade, I’m OK with that; probably made very little, if any, on the Fusion I bought.)

  • avatar

    A dealer in my region sends out those keys a few times a year. When I first moved to the area 12 years ago I took the key into the dealership. The salesman started asking for my credit info and I told him no, I wasn’t giving him the info to run a bureau on me. I was there to see if I won a car. He yelled at me that I was wasting his time and stormed off. I haven’t darkened the door of that dealership since.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I regularly discard the letter declaring that my dealer is in desperate need of used cars, particularly my 09 Sedona, and that they’ll give me up to 20% over KBB for it.

    Of course, that 20% amounts to only a few hundred bucks in an already greasy deal.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I have gotten a number of those letters with keys in them. as for the stupid stick men they are not going to draw me in to a dealership.

  • avatar

    Haha… Just reading the comments here reminds me how much I hate buying cars.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    AJ agree. The last time I bought a new vehicle I had to take a shower afterwards.

    • 0 avatar

      Even the best places will still get ya if you’re not on your guard!

      On March 30th, I went and tested a 2018 Accord Touring my Honda dealer had in stock, and at the time, I asked my salesman if they could appraise my 2013, just to give me a trade-in value and what they’d retail it for. (I was planning to sell the car to a colleague, which didn’t work for his needs; I was going to sell it for halfway between trade and retail.) I noted the numbers, but didn’t make a note on my phone for reference.

      Cut to when we were going over the numbers for the new car, and I didn’t think the trade was too far out of line. But on the way home, it dawned on me to double-check. The numbers were off by $500! A couple months and 400 miles will take the trade down a little, like $200 or $300! So I left $200 on the table. Better luck next time! (Although the amount was still a couple hundred over the Edmunds/KBB values. But it’s just the “what could have been” that nags at me a little. Still did reasonable, and I’ll purchase my next Honda from them.)

      • 0 avatar

        I did a trade for the first new car I bought (many moons ago). The sales manager, who was showing a new salesman how to “make a deal,” told me what the offer for the trade was, which I didn’t even argue over. After the deal was done and I was home with the new car, I was looking over the paperwork and noticed that trade-in on the purchase agreement was $500 less then what he told me. I learned a valuable lesson you might say. Since then I use that experience as inspiration when buying…

  • avatar

    I’ve gotten these several times over the years, usually from the used car dealers with no direct affiliation with a manufacturer. I’ve often thought about going in for defecates and giggles but am only ever half-heartedly thinking about it. I’m also generally not interested in paying the sales tax on something I really don’t need because these would be cars that I would end up selling as I already have a good car whenever they come around. The keys are generally the hardware special Axxess keys for a mid-1990s Ranger. With the number of manufacturers going with prox keys, though, I wonder how long this will last.

    I still see completely asinine sales though. One which comes to mind is a local Chevy dealership that was offering a cheap lease deal on 2 identical Cruzes; you could only have the deal if you took delivery of both. I laughed. I wouldn’t need two cars, nor would I like carrying full coverage on both. Also, how would that work come the end when it’s time to buy out or turn in?

  • avatar

    Collectively America has a gambling problem so ringing that Pavlovian bell is smart business. Everyone wants to be a “winner”.

  • avatar

    As a kid I remember we got one of those through the post. As I was car mad they gave the key to me – it looked very like a Ford Europe 80s key (presumably Ford US would’ve used the same, almost look like screwdrivers with a flat piece with notches in places?)

    Don’t remember it being a dealer though, think it was something like Readers Digest, not sure how people tried the key, I think it was a prop and you phoned up with a code maybe.

    Then there are the raffles, take a £500 tradein, get the dealer valet to shine it up real nice, cover the scuffs and scrapes in “Win me!” stickers, offer raffle tickets – “oh and while you’re here we have a very nice car would suit you….”

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