Sports Illustrated’s Football Phone Sold a Million Magazines

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Vice President and Group Leader

footballA recent article in Rolling Stone reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years: the amazing Sports Illustrated football phone!

Anyone who watched TV in the eighties will remember the ubiquitous ads for Sports Illustrated that featured this phone.

For a few years these commercials were everywhere. But what many people don’t know is that they singlehandedly jumpstarted SI subscriptions.

Magazine subscriptions, Rolling Stone notes, were beginning to hit the doldrums. People already liked Sports Illustrated but they needed a new reason to subscribe or renew.

A savvy young marketing manager named Martin Shampaine conjured up the “premium” as it’s known in magazine marketing parlance. Maybe this gimmicky phone could spur people to suscribe?

Shampaine was able to put together a direct-mail test that was sent to 35,000 random people identified as potential SI subscribers. Their response was overwhelming: Americans wanted the football phone and they wanted it now, more than any other premium SI was offering.

And so began one of the unlikeliest success stories in direct marketing history. The company put the football phone into production and it was immediatedly a gangbusters hit.

“Nearly 30 years after Shampaine’s lunchtime walk,” Rolling Stone writes, “the SI football phone is recognized as unlike anything that came before. It proved to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever executed in American media.”

What I love about the football phone is how perfectly it captures something that’s often true of great advertising. Sometimes the best ideas are quirky, unexpected and only brilliant in retrospect. And indeed, the football phone was all three.