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Lawyer who lost $100,000 contest prize spurs debate about ‘vote farming’

October 9, 2012

The problem of too-vaguely-worded official rules reared its head again recently in the case of a Decatur, Ga., man who won — then lost — a $100,000 grand prize.

The winner, Theodore Scott, is a lawyer by trade, not a farmer. But the contest sponsor, Coca-Cola, claimed Scott disqualified himself by engaging in a type of farming: “Vote farming.” This term is somewhat hard to define. But with the ever-increasing use of social media promotions, I suspect it will crop up in the sweepstakes and contests lexicon more and more.

Broadly defined, “vote farming” involves contest entrants launching broad social media or online “campaigns” with the goal of soliciting votes from strangers and winning the contest. (Got a better definition? E-mail me your suggestions and I will crowd-source a new definition for “vote farming.”)

As reported by the New York Times, Mr. Scott won the $100,000 in the Gold Peak Tea “Take the Year Off” contest after his video entry received the most votes from the general public. 

However, as the article states, Mr. Scott had to forfeit the prize because he requested votes from members of the About.com Sweepstakes Forum, in violation of the contest's official rules. Coca-Cola, which owns Gold Peak Tea, determined that Mr. Scott’s solicitations violated the portion of the rules that states: “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.”

I can sympathize with Mr. Scott’s disappointment in losing $100,000 and the opportunity to spend more time with his family. While it is unclear whether he actually read the 10 full pages of official rules before entering the contest, he now claims that the restrictions contained in the rules do not prohibit the requests he made to members of the Sweepstakes Forum.

I can also sympathize with Coca-Cola in that it appears the company was trying to create a contest that would be fair to everyone who entered. As someone who has created hundreds of sweepstakes and contest rules over the past 16 years, I appreciate Coca-Cola’s efforts to assure that all entrants would have a level playing field and that no one would have an unfair advantage — as evidenced by the 10 pages of rules.

Some commentators have opined that the official rules were not specific enough to put Mr. Scott on notice that his request to Forum members was inappropriate under the Rules. They also contend that the line between paying for votes (which is obviously inappropriate) and asking your family to vote for you (which is obviously acceptable) is so blurred, that terms like “vote farming” do not provide sufficient notice of what is prohibited. 

Others argue that even if the term “vote farming” was not defined, a reading of the full context indicates Mr. Scott should have known that his actions could have been found to violate the rules. And moreover, Coca-Cola reserved the right to determine in their sole discretion if his vote requests may have artificially inflated his votes.

The $100,000 lesson

One lesson here is that there needs to be some generally accepted dividing line between what is an acceptable means of requesting votes in these types of contests and what is “inappropriate,” particularly because this issue is certain to arise again in the future. Perhaps the first step in reaching this goal is to agree on a definition of the term “vote farming” as it applies to these types of rules.

Another lesson is that both entrants and sponsors need to pay careful attention to the rules. Sponsors should be careful to describe with as much specificity as possible what conduct is considered inappropriate and what practices are prohibited. Similarly, entrants need to make sure they read and understand all of the terms and conditions in the official rules. If they don’t understand them, they should contact the sponsor so that the rules can be clarified for all entrants.

Neither Mr. Scott nor Coca-Cola won anything as a result of this contest. Mr. Scott is out $100,000 and may not be able to take a year off with his family. Coca-Cola has antagonized a segment of its customers, which is the opposite result they anticipated from the contest. Let’s hope that this $100,000 lesson will somehow help both sponsors and entrants prevent this situation from occurring in the future.

This post was written by retired Thompson Coburn partner Dale Joerling. If you have any questions about the topics discussed in this post, please contact Thompson Coburn partner Hap Burke.