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Mr. Scott was DQ’d with no reasonable explanation. It’s tough to be transparent in a contest, so the agency’s job is to work hard to maintain the appearance of fairness and transparency. Something broke down in this case.

Update 10/4:  Someone started a petition for Mr. Scott on Signup.org.  Will be interesting to see how quickly this dies down.

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Here’s the problem:  Contests seem like simple, high-leverage marketing programs that practically run themselves.  So upper management – at the sponsor, the brand, or the PR agency – takes their eyes off the ball for just a second…perhaps when reviewing the mind-numbing final rules…and something goes terribly wrong.   The lesson:  Stay tuned-in throughout the program; have multiple meetings over, and understand each aspect of, the final official rules; work with experienced people…not just experienced agencies.  Ignore these at great risk.

Ask Coke, ePrize (owned by the private equity firm Catterton Partners), and poor Theodore Scott.  Someone needs to explain what the heck happened here, because it makes no sense to us…and we do this for a living.

Online contests are about viral marketing.  They’re designed to encourage people to go out, be creative and see how you can spread the word and garner votes.  The sponsor, usually, wants its customers to be agressive and GET OUT THE VOTE!  That’s what it’s about!

So a seemingly nice family man (at least that’s the way the NYTimes portrayed him) named Theodore Scott seemingly did just that and won Gold Peak Tea’s (owned by Coke) contestwith a prize of $100,000 (the winner was supposed to take a year off of work and…do work for Coke in form of unpaid promotions…blogging, tweeting, etc.).  But at some point someone decided that he should be DQ’d, as we say in the biz.

The stated reason for the DQ, from Gold Peak Tea’s FB page is as follows:

“Theodore Scott was disqualified when it was determined during the verification process that he had attempted to inappropriately induce members of the public to vote for his submission, a violation of Official Contest Rules.”

The relevant section from the rules states as follows…the specific words are in red, but they’re better understood in context so the whole paragraph is left intact:

From Official Rules:  ”For All Voters: Multiple voters are not permitted to share the same email address or Facebook account. Use of script, macro or any other automated system to vote is prohibited and all such votes will be void. Finalists are prohibited from obtaining votes for any Submission and Video by any fraudulent or inappropriate means, including, without limitation, offering prizes or other inducements to members of the public, vote farming, or any other activity that artificially inflates such Finalists’ votes as determined by Sponsor in its sole discretion. Entrants are prohibited from sabotaging the votes of any Submissions through any means deemed inappropriate by Sponsor, in its sole discretion. If an entrant or voter engages in any of the aforementioned acts, his/her votes will be void, and his/her Submissions (if any) will be disqualified.”

So Mr. Scott did what is usually considered smart contesting:  he spread the word on popular community sites.  So why did Coke object?  I think I know.

1.  The site Mr. Scott posted to  is a forum frequented by people who enter a lot of contests.  There are a bunch of such sites, and the people in them are considered by sponsors to be low quality traffic (because the people enter contests all day, and are thought to generally ignore the sponsor, though there’s no real evidence of that).  If he’d gone to iVillage, for example, and done the same thing I’m sure they would not have objected.  They probably wouldn’t admit it, and I can’t prove it, but again we do this for a living.

To justify it, they probably cited the fact that he put an inducement in his forum message, as you can see below.  The problem is that it wasn’t HIS inducement, it was a sub-contest run by Coke/ePrize!  Here’s his post:

So based on the evidence, I’d say there’s something going on we don’t know about.  Maybe Mr. Scott lives in a community that the sponsor doesn’t value…maybe they don’t distribute Gold Leaf Tea at his local grocery store…or maybe they don’t like lawyers, I have no idea, but there’s clearly something going on that isn’t being disclosed, including some marketing folks who are scared about their job security over this.

Of course sponsors always leave such issues as disqualification “at their sole discretion”, to cover themselves legally and historically it’s hard to argue against that…the customer rarely wins.  But in this case it’s no longer about who wins, but who loses…and the big loser here, other than Mr. Scott, is Coke and  the tea company.  For their efforts they’ve garnered almost 250 negative comments on their FB page and  the bloom is off their rose of a program.  Too bad, and goes to show that picking your contest partner isn’t about going with the biggest company, its about partnering with people who have deep experience and are eager to bring that to your program.