In one case, it was a flyer on a car windshield. Another was a listing of a telephone number to call. A third was an application form on a retail store counter. Each offered gifts ranging from prizes to a Hawaiian vacation.

All of these approaches, including a phone call that offered a prize if you knew that Michael Jackson was the youngest Entertainer of the Year, have been used recently by marketing outfits in the Washington area. They have used the lure of gifts to gain access to people to sell them something, such as china and crystal, cameras or time-share memberships.

"These are variations on the old gambit in which the company is trying to catch your attention by offering you something free," said Baxter Carr, a U.S. postal inspector who monitors consumer complaints about misleading offers and "gifts" that don't live up to consumer expectations.

Companies continue to use the free-gift approach, despite a negative response from many consumers, because it works. Carr said use of gifts as marketing tools is rising.

"Most people, when they are told that they have won a free gift, respond in a favorable way," Carr said. "They are excited about winning, and once they think they have won something, it fogs what they hear about the rest of the sales pitch."

One indication of an increase in the free-gift approach, he said, is buried in the statistics on third-class mail, a popular vehicle for prize promotions. "In 1983, we moved 41 billion pieces of mail third class, up one-third from 1979 when we moved 27.5 billion pieces third class," Carr said.

Some companies that rely on the free-gift approach are legitimate, he said, but others are not, and it is often difficult for consumers to know whether they are about to get bilked.

Leslie Fries, 22, was at work in a Silver Spring auto parts store recently when a woman telephoned, saying "she was from the American Film Processing Co. and that it was giving away a promotional package if I could answer a question."

Fries was asked: Who was the youngest Entertainer of the Year?

"I said Michael Jackson, and they said that I had it right and that I had won a camera that retailed for $99 nationwide, 100 rolls of free film and an expense-paid vacation," Fries said.

"The woman said that they would deliver the package if I would pay the promotional fee of $39.95."

Fries agreed, and a woman representative from the company appeared in her office within minutes. The woman took Fries' money and presented her with her gift.

"Looking at the camera in the package, it looked real nice," Fries said.

"But when I took it out and looked at it, I knew it couldn't sell for $99. It looked like a toy -- like something a kid would use."

Instead of free film, Fries said, "They gave me coupons to send in for film. And the vacation was for hotel accommodations -- I would have to pay for air fare and food."

Fries has asked for her money back, but she has not received it. Efforts to reach the company for comment were unsuccessful.

Jo Anne Douglas, 60, was waiting in the checkout line at Christmas World, a new Oxon Hill store, on Oct. 6 when she noticed a promotional box on the counter with forms that said something like "Win a trip to Spain."

Douglas filled out the form and later received a call at the downtown Washington office where she works as a statistical typist. The caller told her she had won a trip to Spain.

"I said, 'Oh my, what's the catch?' They said there was no catch and that they would send me a letter with all the information in it."

But Douglas and her husband, Clarence, who has a heart condition, began to have doubts about the contest when they received the letter and it "sounded like a time-share promotion."

They also were put off by the part of the letter that said they had won hotel accommodations but there would be a drawing for the air fare.

At that point, Douglas called the company handling the promotion. "They said that the letter didn't apply to us; they said we had really won the trip and that we were to come out to their office in Alexandria the next day to pick up our vacation packet," Douglas said.

When the couple drove from their Temple Hills home to the Alexandria office, however, they found that "there were six other couples sitting there saying that they also had won," Douglas said.

Each couple was ushered into a small room with a salesman, she said.

"When our turn came, the salesman started off by saying that he wouldn't talk to us about their project because we weren't qualified because my husband is crippled and retired and I am older and getting ready to retire."

When Douglas asked about the trip, she said the salesman replied that "we had gotten the hotel room and a meal a day but that there would be a drawing later for the air fare tickets."

At that point, the Douglases walked out -- taking with them the telephone that was their gift for going to Alexandria.

Christmas World owner George Merling said that he has removed the box from his store because of complaints from customers such as the Douglases.

"People felt they had been misled in thinking they had won a trip when all they really got was free hotel accommodations," Merling said.

The trip promotion is being handled by Creative Concepts, a Springfield advertising agency, on behalf of Berkshire Realty of Alexandria and Norvind of Vienna, two time-share companies selling memberships in Florida resorts.

Gayle Espinosa, vice president of Creative Concepts, said that the promotion has received "a lot of reponse," some positive and some negative.

Espinosa said the promotion complied with the law and the complaints are from "people who read things into the offer that aren't there."

Another kind of free-gift approach was tried on Donna A. Esposito, 27, of Fairfax County.

"There was a flyer stuck in the windshield of my car," Esposito said.

"It was like a game card, offering a grand prize of a Hawaiian vacation and listing a number to call for information."

Esposito, who is an investigator for the Fairfax County Office of Consumer Affairs, decided to check out the flyer.

She called the phone number to inquire about her prize and was told that a representative from the company, Royal Prestige East, would come to her home to make a presentation.

Working with another Consumer Affairs employe who could witness the presentation, Esposito made an appointment to meet the representative at a Fairfax apartment.

"A young man came out and showed us the merchandise he was selling," Esposito said.

"He had china, stoneware, flatware, pots and pans, general kitchen stuff, and he showed us a piece of crystal and said it was Waterford."

Esposito said she knew immediately that he was wrong.

"I had just finished buying Waterford crystal for a girlfriend's wedding, and I knew it is handblown and hand cut and has a green sticker," she said. "This wasn't Waterford."

Esposita did not buy anything, and she did not accept her gift, which turned out to be hotel accommodations in a vacation city.

But she did file a report on her investigation.

Later, when two Fairfax County consumers complained about the so-called Waterford crystal they had been sold by Royal Prestige East salespersons, Esposito contacted Waterford to confirm her findings.

On Sept. 20, Royal Prestige East signed an agreement with Fairfax County to refund $610 to the two consumers and to pay $500 to Fairfax County to cover the cost of its investigation.