Are you really going to die? Or is someone just trying to sell you something?

The best-known examples of successful “growth hacks” — low-cost alternatives to traditional marketing — have been executed by tech companies. There’s the story of how Airbnb scraped Craigslist, the Dropbox referral program that went viral, and the classic example of Hotmail adding “Get your free email at Hotmail” tagline to the end of every email. (Ah! Simpler times when consumers would let you add spammy messages to the ends of their emails…)

While those are all fine examples, they teach would-be growth hackers, entrepreneurs, and marketers that growth hacking is something that only happens online. In contrast, I would argue some of the best growth hacks have nothing to do with the Internet.

Let me tell you about a brilliant growth hack executed by — of all things — my local Lexus dealership.

I’ve owned a Lexus for eight years. Every month since purchasing my car, I’ve received a glossy postcard with a picture of a shiny new Lexus and incentives meant to entice me into my local dealership for a test drive of their latest models. And every month I’ve tossed those postcards into the recycle bin without a second glance.

However, six months ago, I began receiving thick envelopes from Lexus with “URGENT SAFETY NOTICE” stamped on their fronts in bold, threatening red letters.

The messages were related to a massive Takata airbag recall that’s been ongoing for the better part of a decade.

Note the line where it says: “metal fragments could pass through the airbag cushion material, striking the vehicle occupants, and result in serious injury or death.” That sounds… umm… less than ideal.

What struck me as odd about these recall notices was how persistent they were. Companies don’t usually encourage consumers to take action on recalls because the repairs cost lots of money. But not this time. The more I ignored the letters, the more I received. I started feeling like Vernon Dursley trying to stop Harry Potter from getting his Hogwarts invitation.

That’s right… I made a Harry Potter reference… I’m not ashamed.

After Lexus finally convinced me I was going to die if I didn’t get my car fixed, I called my local dealership and scheduled a warranty repair appointment. The woman on the phone told me they’d “just had a last-minute cancelation” and asked if I could bring my car in the next morning. I remember thinking “maybe this recall is a bigger issue than I’d realized.” Clearly, I’m gullible.

The next day, I took my car into the dealer thinking I’d have an hour in the waiting room to catchup on emails while the repair was done. The dealer had other plans.

“We’re incredibly backed up right now,” the service manager apologetically explained as he walked me out of the near-empty repair garage and into the equally empty waiting area. At that point, I probably should have suspected something wasn’t adding up, but the service manager distracted me with a warm chocolate chip cookie and a bottle of water. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we’re going to need to keep your car overnight. Don’t worry, I’ve already got a complimentary loaner setup for you.”

He escorted me to a just-washed, just-vacuumed, Lexus sedan that was the newer version of my current car. It was even the same dark blue color as mine. Somehow, I don’t think the color was a coincidence. He gave a quick tutorial on how to use the admittedly impressive navigation console, then he pressed the “Sport Mode” button, winked at me, and said, “It’s more fun to drive it like this. Besides, it’s not like you’ll be wasting your own gas!”

He was right: it was more fun to drive in “Sport Mode.” Somehow, I still didn’t realize what was happening. I didn’t realize it when I volunteered to drive my coworkers to lunch that afternoon. I didn’t realize it when I took the long way home from work so I could test how the car handled on the highway.

No, I didn’t realize what was happening until my wife got home from work, saw the loaner car in our garage, and asked if she could take it for a “test drive” around the neighborhood.

In that moment, everything became clear. I was being growth hacked.

Lexus was using the recall — threatening me with the potential for serious injury or even death — in order to get me into the dealership for a test drive.

Some people might be mad at a company for using the threat of death to make a sale. Not me. As someone who’s spent the past 15 years in the marketing industry, I’m usually pretty good at sniffing out sneaky marketing tactics, but I completely whiffed on this one. I was impressed.

In retrospect, the tactic makes sense as a marketing strategy. Since I’m already a satisfied Lexus owner, I’m a perfect sales prospect. Unfortunately, since I’m happy with my current car, traditional marketing strategies like glossy postcards aren’t effective because I’m not in the market for a new car. So they tried something else: death threats. Hard to ignore those.

From a moral perspective, the tactic seems questionable. Sure, it was important I got my car fixed. But will I be less inclined to respond to future recall notices? Possibly…

Regardless, once I’d recognized the con, I was eager to get my car back. I called the dealer that evening and asked if, by chance, my car was finished early. And, of course, it was. They were probably done with the repair before I’d even left the parking lot.

But the growth hack wasn’t quite complete. When I picked up my car, I found a letter on my passenger seat from the dealer’s general manager thanking me for coming in and “kindly” informing me of some current sales. Included in his letter was the trade-in value he was willing to give for my car if I was interested in purchasing a new Lexus.

“Well played, Lexus,” I thought as I drove away, my suspicion confirmed. I’d just been #GrowthHacked.

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store