Leveling the Playing Field: Eligibility Rules for Contests Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

Consumer voting has become a trendy element of skill contests sponsored by retail brands. Such voting enables the sponsors to drive traffic to their Facebook pages and web sites and generate consumer interest. But the rules they develop to create a level playing field can sometimes backfire.

Here are some recent cases in point: Theodore Scott was disqualified from a contest sponsored by Gold Peak Tea, a Coca-Cola brand, because he used an online contest forum to gain publicity and generate votes, allegedly in violation of contest rules. The disqualification resulted in negative fallout in the press for Coca-Cola and its Gold Peak Tea brand. More recently, Boston’s Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was disqualified from a contest to have Taylor Swift perform live because contest sponsors Papa John’s and Chegg disapproved of the fact that votes for the school came as the result of an Internet prank. Later, Ms. Swift, Papa John’s, Chegg and VH1’s Save the Music program donated thousands of dollars to the school, perhaps hoping to diffuse any negative publicity arising from the disqualification.

Although contest sponsors may have broad discretion in writing and enforcing eligibility rules to keep entrants from cheating or gaming the system, the exercise of their discretion can have unintended negative consequences. Of course, a key function of contest rules is to prevent dishonesty and other forms of foul play. However, if the eligibility rules are perceived as too strict, they can harm the very images and brands the contests are meant to enhance. Therefore, among other things, contest sponsors should keep apprised of how the roles of the Internet and social media evolve as platforms for hosting contests [see post “Void Where Prohibited…” (3/21/12)] and as outreach tools for contestants. The sponsors must exercise good judgment in drafting and enforcing eligibility rules that keep up with evolving media, technology and the reasonable expectations of contestants.

Related topics: Compliance