Early in her career, Taylor Swift was a spokesperson for one of our clients. I drafted the official rules for several contests that were used for her concerts and appearances at the client’s sponsored events. (I am secretly convinced that it was those contest rules that lead to her phenomenal success a singer.) While I am not a “Swiftie,” I admire her work ethic and am offended when I hear about people who don’t appreciate her talent or try to embarrass her.
It is a group of those persons who have sabotaged two recent Taylor Swift contests by using “vote farming.” As we’ve mentioned previously, vote farming is not a clearly defined term. However, it is generally recognized as an attempt to win a contest by launching broad social media or online “campaigns” with the goal of soliciting votes from strangers. Vote farmers often, but not always, do this by cheating or engaging in dishonest, unfair, deceptive, unsportsmanlike or other inappropriate conduct.
The two contests that were vote-farmed were promotions in which the prizes were appearances by Taylor. In the first contest, co-sponsored by Chegg and Papa John’s Pizza, Taylor agreed to perform at a promotional concert for the school that received the most votes. The vote farming group then instigated a campaign to gather votes for the Horace Mann School for the Deaf; the school won handily. Taylor did not perform at the Horace Mann School, but she did contribute several thousand dollars to the school’s music program.
More recently, Taylor agreed to participate in a Boston radio station’s contest in which would meet with her “Biggest Fan” backstage before one of her concerts. The “Biggest Fan” would be the person who received the most votes. The winner would meet Taylor before the concert and receive tickets to the concert. Once again, the same group of vote farmers thought it would be amusing if the winner was a “creepy looking” 39-year-old man whose motivation was reportedly to “ruin girls’ dreams about meeting Taylor.”
In both of these incidences, the sponsors of the contests refused to award the prize to the “subsidized winner.” To do this, the sponsors relied on language in the official rules designed to prohibit this type of vote farming conduct. In the radio station sweepstakes, the sponsor terminated the contest with the following notice:
"Disapprovingly, we have determined that the integrity of the “Taylor Swift’s Biggest Fan” contest has been compromised. In accordance with our contest rules, effective immediately, the contest has been terminated. We apologize to all of our loyal listeners who have participated."
While it is difficult to anticipate what types of vote farming you may encounter, it is important to include provisions in the official rules that anticipate the possibility of vote farmers disrupting your contest. Having anti-vote farming language in your contest’s rules will be very helpful if you encounter the need to disqualify an entrant who has used vote farming to hijack the contest.
Dale Joerling is the chair of Thompson Coburn’s Advertising, Marketing and Promotion Law group. He is editorial director of the Sweepstakes Law Blog. You can find Dale on Google+ and Twitter, and reach him at (314) 552-6058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.