Free Car or Free Waffle? The Millionth Customer Crapshoot

Amanda Sant, 21, from Innisfil, Ontario won a trip to New York City to see 'Jersey Boys' on Broadway for being the 1 millionth customer at Toronto's production of 'Jersey Boys'. Tannis Toohey/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The "millionth customer" gimmick must be one of the oldest publicity stunts in the book. If your company is lucky enough to make it to the seven-digit milestone, all you have to do is write an ALL CAPS press release to drum up some free local news coverage and give an unsuspecting customer the surprise of their life. Release the balloons, roll out the red carpet and cue the photo op as the CEO presents the millionth customer with an unforgettable prize.  

Like a plaque.

Yes, that's the highly forgettable gift that Shanneil McCollum received when she ordered the billionth waffle — with a B! — from Waffle House in September 2015. It took Waffle House 60 years to reach this extraordinary milestone, and all the breakfast chain could manage was to hit up the local trophy store for a two-tone plaque with a picture of a waffle on it. It also paid for McCollum's apple crumb waffle, gave her a bag of Waffle House swag, and bought breakfast for the dozen or so other patrons in the Atlanta restaurant. Still pretty lame for a company that pockets more than $1 billion in annual sales.

If you're going to manufacture a news story by celebrating your millionth customer or billionth car wash, do it right: Print up an oversized check and give a dude $10,000. Give away a year of free fish tacos.

Or do what Toyota did when it sold its 50 millionth car in the U.S. — crash the backyard barbecue of a New York cop and blow his freakin' mind. Not only did Toyota pay off the balance on Michael Dee's Camry, which he'd bought a few months earlier, but it also gave him a brand-new 2013 RAV4. Watch and learn, Waffle House!

Disney knows how to throw a party. Back in 2006, the global mega-brand celebrated the 2 billionth visitor to one of its global theme parks and properties. Two billion is a massive milestone — it coincided with the 50th anniversary celebration of Disney Parks — and Disney didn't skimp on the prizes.

The lucky guest was 12-year-old Emmalee Mason of Colorado Springs, Colorado. She and her entire family (all 10 of them!) received lifetime passes to all 11 Disney theme parks worldwide. She also got an exclusive tour of the park, a private photo session with Disney characters and was named Grand Marshall of the 50th anniversary parade.

Not every global mega-brand knows how to hit a PR softball out of the park. Look at McDonald's, which has sold so many burgers that it officially stopped counting in 1994 when it surpassed 100 billion sold. But that wasn't the case in 1984 when the fast-food chain hit the 50 billionth burger mark and celebrated in the weirdest, least McDonald's way imaginable.

Instead of giving away a lifetime of free McNuggets to a lucky drive-thru customer, or stuffing a Happy Meal with 50 million dollars cash, McDonald's rented out a ballroom at a swank New York City hotel where the CEO cooked up a Quarter Pounder and personally served it to Dick McDonald, co-founder of the original McDonald's restaurant in San Bernadino, California. The assembled crowd of moneyed executives continued the celebration over Big Macs and Champagne, an unlikely (and unholy) combo meal

Budget European airline Ryanair gave its 13 millionth passenger at Shannon Airport in Ireland a free flight and free hotel accommodations, as well as a free flight for everyone else on board in 2014. Not bad but kinda chintzy compared to what its 1 millionth passenger got in 1988 — free travel for life for herself and a companion. On the other hand, Ryanair subsequently reneged on its promise, and the passenger had to go to court to get what's hers in 2002. Maybe Ryanair learned from that and decided to make the big prize more "manageable."