What a Mattress Guy Taught Me About Advertising In the Dead Times

This conversation happened nearly 20 years ago, but it fits 2016 just fine. It’s a radio story but it applies perfectly to television advertising… or newspaper advertising… or transit advertising… or digital advertising.

Mattress advertising sells mattresses all year long

Photo by Pavel Losevsky/dpc


There is a large mattress chain on the West Coast called Sleep Train, founded in Sacramento by Dale Carlsen. They were a customer of mine when I worked in Portland radio.

When Sleep Train first came to Portland — probably in the mid to late 90’s —  Dale used to buy the media himself. Once a year he would fly from Sacramento to Portland and meet with every station in town. He would choose the stations he wanted to work with and negotiate a 52-week contract with each one.

You either got 52 weeks or nothing. I always got 52 weeks. As a commissioned salesperson, I liked this arrangement a great deal.

It took me two years to work up the nerve to ask him a question. He was in town and we were having lunch.

I asked him what the store’s worst month of the year was.

He answered, “December. We can’t compete with Santa Claus – December’s always horrible.”

I screwed up my courage and plunged ahead. “You’re going to be on the air every week in December, just like the rest of the year. Why do you do it if customers aren’t buying mattresses then?”

His reply has stuck with me for nearly two decades:

“Our research shows that people buy mattresses every 7 to 10 years. They’re usually ‘in the market’ for three days. They wake up one day and their back hurts… out of town visitors are coming and they need a bed for the guest room… they are moving into a new home.

“Whatever the reason, they’re going to buy a mattress from someone within three days. If it’s not my store, I have to wait another 7 to 10 years to have another shot at them. I want to talk to them every single week, so whenever they decide to shop for a mattress their car drives to Sleep Train by itself.”

That’s the value of advertising of advertising “out of season” – advertising makes an impact even if people are not in the market right that second.

I’ve long since lost touch with Dale Carlsen, but last year I read that he’d sold Sleep Train for $425 million. Not bad for what started as a single store in Sacramento, with Carlsen delivering mattresses in his pickup truck.

Not everyone has the money to do 52 weeks the way Sleep Train did, but many can be on the air consistently, 12 months a year. You just need to give them a good reason to do it.

Making a car drive by itself just might be that reason.


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