Ask Bark: Did I Throw Away The Key To A New Car?

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth
ask bark did i throw away the key to a new car

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, and follow Bark on Instagram @barkmfors. He’ll be your friend if you do.

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2 of 66 comments
  • Sportyaccordy Sportyaccordy on Jun 25, 2019

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

  • WallMeerkat WallMeerkat on Jun 25, 2019

    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...."

  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs
  • Sid SB Not seen a Core without the performance pack yet. Prefer the more understated look of the Core vs the Circuit, but both are great fun to drive.