I’m a big fan of your articles. I’m retired and use and need coupons to help balance my budget. In Sunday’s paper I went through the ad for a national chain pharmacy when I saw a product on sale with a note in the ad saying that a coupon for the product is in Sunday’s paper. Guess what? It’s a ghost coupon … no coupon in my paper. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. I could write the company and they would probably mail a coupon, but then the sale would be over. Why should I have to though? My newspaper is going up in price, and they don’t seem to understand there are people in the world who do not have money or have the knowledge (to a much lesser degree) to access the digital world.”
— Dave T.
You’re absolutely right – it’s a pretty common advertising strategy for stores’ ad circulars to show both the sale price of an item alongside text that helpfully states, “$2 coupon in most Sunday newspapers!” This, of course, makes the situation all the more frustrating when you flip through Sunday’s coupon inserts, scanning each page to find that elusive coupon. While I’ve certainly experienced this, I don’t believe this phenomenon ever had a specific name until my reader Dave gave it one: Ghost coupons!
Why would a store advertise a ghost coupon that doesn’t exist? First, it’s important to understand that there are a lot of factors that come together in regards to advertising and coupons. There is a significant lead time involved in preparing both the stores’ advertisements and the coupons that appear in your weekly insert. One coupon insert publisher’s lead time is about four months – so, right now, someone’s deciding which coupon offers to run at the end of December.
Meanwhile, stores differ on how far in advance they’re planning and creating their circulars. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Store X plans their sales three months out. The coupon insert publisher shares their insert preview with the store. The store notes that a $1 coupon for shampoo is scheduled to run on a specific Sunday, so they include that information in the circular.
The store’s ad goes to press based on the coupon insert publisher’s planned schedule. Meanwhile, somewhere along the way, that brand decided that they’d change their promotion and offer the $1 shampoo coupon the following week instead. The coupon inserts go to press and there’s no shampoo coupon inside – but, again, at the time Store X’s circular was designed, that coupon was scheduled to be there.
There’s another element in play here, too: multiple newspapers. I’ve covered this topic at length over the years in my column, but different newspapers have different coupons in them – even though the names of the inserts (RedPlum, SmartSource, P&G Brandsaver) are the same. The insert’s cover may even be the same, but the number and kind of coupons inside differs based on the newspaper’s size and circulation.
If you live in an area with multiple newspapers serving the market, you may have noticed that the largest paper typically has the most coupons in it. This is not the fault of the newspaper, so please don’t blame them for it – it’s a decision being made by the brands. While some brands opt to pay to place coupons in every version of an insert, others target their marketing toward inserts that will be placed in newspapers with the largest number of readers.
When you see ad text that reads, “$2 coupon in most Sunday newspapers,” the key word is “most.” It’s possible that the coupon isn’t truly a ghost – it may simply be in a different newspaper that’s also available in your area.
I realize this isn’t an option for those without internet access, but printable and load-to-card coupon offerings often overlap with some of the coupon promotions running in the circular. The ghost coupon may not be in your paper, but at times, you may find a similar offer online.