The worst things in life are free

Published 1:47 am Saturday, August 22, 2009

Monday, the government will pull the plug on its “Cash for Clunkers” program. In several different news reports, congressional officials said they were surprised at how popular the program was.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know a thing about how the human mind works, but I do know this much — if you’re giving something away for free, there’s a distinct possibility that people might want it.

For a moment, let’s ignore the fact the program’s not really “free” — the American taxpayers are the ones footing the bill. Instead, I think it’s more important to focus on what the popularity of this program says about the American people, and our government’s lack of common sense.

It’s not just the government, though. Just off the top of my head, I can think of two different instances where a company gave away something for free, only to suffer unintended consequences when … well … large numbers of people showed up and wanted it.

Several years ago, I visited Six Flags over Georgia with a friend. I made a point to visit on a day that typically experiences relatively few visitors. But when we arrived at the park, it was crowded with people — many of whom were obnoxious and rowdy teenagers who cut in line, swore like sailors and were rude to park officials who asked them to behave.

I later discovered the reason the park was so crowded was because a local radio station was holding a “Ditch Day” promotion where admission into the park was free.

This is how S.A. Reid of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported the story about the fiasco: “The people involved in staging a free-admission promotion at the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park say they never saw Thursday morning’s trouble coming. The promotion bottled up morning rush hour traffic on Atlanta’s west side.”

I am baffled that the people at Six Flags didn’t see this coming — hello, you’re giving away a $40 value for nothing! Of course people are going to show up.

Another example of underestimating America’s love of free stuff was when Denny’s and KFC recently ran promotions giving away free food. Not surprisingly, lines were insane and public interest was so high that eventually KFC pulled the plug on the gimmick.

Here’s a hint for the next time the government — or a private company — institutes a “free” giveaway program like “Cash for Clunkers.” First, write down your maximum guess for the number of people you think will participate. Then, multiply that number by a thousand.

You can never underestimate what people will do to get something that’s “free.”