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Sandra Grauschopf

Contestant Disqualified for Asking for Votes in the About.com Sweepstakes Forum

By October 1, 2012

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Today, the New York Times ran an article called Winner Uses Contest Site and Loses Grand Prize. The basic gist of the article is that a contestant in the Gold Peak Tea Take a Year Off Contest was disqualified after asking for votes in a sweepstakes forum. It was the About.com Sweepstakes Forum that was mentioned in the article. The winner, Theodore Scott, requested votes in the appropriate section of the Sweepstakes Forum. There is no requirement to return votes, though many people do. There are some vote exchange sites where you MUST return votes if you ask for votes, but that's not the case on the About.com Sweepstakes Forum.

The section of the Take a Year Off Contest's rules that were cited in the disqualification were: "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."

There are some very clear ways that people can break these rules. Paying for votes, using fake Facebook accounts to get more votes, giving away prizes or the chance to win prizes for people who vote -- those are clear violations.

It's fairly clear that the entrants are encouraged to ask people to vote for their entry. But the boundaries for asking for those votes are not clear in those rules -- not to me, and not to the disqualified entrant, who is a lawyer himself, and who took pains to follow the rules to the letter. I guess that no one would call it cheating if entrants would ask for votes on their Facebook pages, right? But would it be OK if they created a separate Facebook page or event to reach a broader audience? Would it be OK to send an email to their friends? What if they were on a large email list, like the PGA newsletter list that apparently helped an entrant win a $10,000 prize in a former Pampered Pet Contest? Could you take out a billboard to ask people to vote? Is simply asking people to tell you if they are also in contests, without even promising to vote back, an inducement? If you asked your mom to vote for you in a contest where the prize was a trip, and said you'd take her if you won, enough to get you disqualified for inducement? If you told your friends you'd buy them a round of drinks with cash you won an inducement?

I think it's a very interesting case, because on one hand, the companies WANT people to go out and drum up votes. On the other hand, they don't want any bad PR. They take a real risk when they leave the winner up to the public, and I wish they wouldn't do it. They can easily make voting a part of a contest, without it being a deciding factor. If you want to win a big prize like this, you simply have to reach more than your immediate friends and family.

In my opinion, the sponsor's rules were not clear enough. If they did not want people to exchange votes, they should have spelled it out. I have the feeling that if other people hadn't accused the winner of cheating, there would have been no problem awarding the prize.

The winner also had a good point in saying that some of the other finalists had broken specific rules in the contest, about the length of time of entries, the use of stock images in entries, and more. According to Theodore Scott, those entrants were not disqualified, whereas he was disqualified for a much more nebulous clause in the contest. Is it OK for the winning entry to have broken a rule that actually was spelled out?

The sponsor was smart enough to leave the rules open-ended, so they could disqualify for nearly any reason they chose, so they are probably within their legal rights. But wouldn't it have been better all around if the contestants acting in good faith would know what they could and couldn't do under the rules?

It's also an important reminder to everyone who enters contests. Reading and understanding the rules is vital. If you have any questions, be sure to contact the sweepstakes sponsor.

What do you think? Do you think that Gold Peak Tea should have disqualified Theodore Scott? What do you think about how voting is used in contests? Click on the "Comments" link below to share your thoughts!

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October 1, 2012 at 11:04 am
(1) Derek says:

I would assume you have to do vote trading in order to win any of these (because so many other people will be doing it and not get “caught” ) plus now you have the chance to be DQ’d too? Just another reason not to touch voting sweeps with ten-foot pole imo.

October 1, 2012 at 11:23 am
(2) Sandra Grauschopf, Guide to Contests says:

@Derek, I agree. Not to mention, it would be an easy way to get a competitor who’s doing well disqualified. Just make an account in his name, request votes, then report it.

October 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm
(3) Theodore Scott says:

Let me thank you for the support you gave me in today’s New York Times’ article. I was further encouraged by your blog article. As you pointed out, these were real people. I did not induce them, and they did not induce me. In fact, I took the time to view the entries, videos and photographs of my fellow forum members and forum friends. If I did not like their submissions, I did not vote for them. If I liked the submissions, I voted for them and offered my compliments as well. It was obvious to me that many of the contestants in your forum worked hard to submit quality entries, and they gained not only my vote, but my admiration. Several of the contestants, after they read my story and viewed my video, not only voted for me, but they told me how my story struck an emotional cord and moved them.

You have an excellent forum and your Contest and Sweepstakes’ website is outstanding. Thanks for everything.

October 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm
(4) Deanne says:

I have been doing online contests for several years, and I never enter into “voting” contests as I’m not willing to vote exchange, vote share, vote buy or use other means of winning. If you do not do these activities, you won’t win a voting contest, plain and simple.

If Mr. Scott hadn’t solicited votes, then someone else would have. The blame really is on the sponsor’s part for not researching how to set up a fair and equitable contest, there are many articles and websites about how public voting contests are a thing of the past because of the above reasons.

It’s a simple matter to set up the rules so that the sponsor selects the winning entry only, and public voting plays no part.

October 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm
(5) Sandra Grauschopf, Guide to Contests says:

Deanne, you make some great points, thanks for commenting!

October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm
(6) Sandra Grauschopf, Guide to Contests says:

Thank you for the compliments, Theodore Scott! I’m sorry that the contest had such a poor ending for you. I hope that you won’t give up, and will keep trying. It can be such a fun and rewarding hobby!

October 1, 2012 at 3:00 pm
(7) Vanessa says:

Great article Sandra! What you say here makes so much sense. There is a petition ( http://t.co/3Xj8ngVR ) that people can sign in support of Theodore and the principles that you discuss in your article.

People can also tweet about it here:

or visit and like the facebook page: Stand for Justice (Go team Theodore)

We want to hear from more reasonable people like you!

October 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm
(8) Gloria Washington says:

No I don’t think Theodore Scott should have been disqualified. He entered a contest that required people to vote for you, this was a voting contest!! So why when he asked people to vote for him he was disqualified? I don’t get it. Why have a votig contest if you can’t ask people to vote for you. Why not just choose the winner based on the best entry and forget about the votes.

October 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm
(9) Greg M. says:

I too avoid public vote sweepstakes like the plague. I have neither the time nor the energy to go out there and campaign for votes like I’m sure other finalists would. I put voting sweepstakes in the same category as “enter as often as you wish” sweepstakes, which favor those who use automated programs to enter once a second. Not for me!

And I think sponsors would be well advised to avoid running such sweepstakes. It opens the door for all sorts of problems. First, there is the obvious potential for abuse, “vote harvesting” as they call it. Then there is the possibility of allegations of discrimination. I’m thinking specifically of the recent Folger’s Create-a-Jingle contest, which had submissions in various music styles. I remember thinking at the time that I could only imagine the firestorm that would occur if, for example, all the hip hop submissions received far fewer votes than did the country submissions. Then there’s pranks. I’m thinking specifically of Stephan Colbert getting his viewers to nominate his name for NASA’s “name the new space station module” poll (not a sweepstakes, but you get the idea).

If a sponsor wants to generate interest, then fine – make a public vote (give away instant win prizes for voting if they want). But make the winner either selected randomly or by a panel of judges.

October 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm
(10) Helen Barnett says:

Theodore Scott won this contest without question and should be awarded the prize. He is the only true winner. I voted for Mr Scott as so many others, to later find out our votes were disregarded, and not considered at all. We were encouraged to vote each day for the term of the contest for the finalist of our choice per the Sweepstakes Ad. Theodore Scott’s story alone was one that we could relate to and I am sure touched the lives of so many of his voters. He deserves the grand prize because he earned it!!

October 2, 2012 at 7:15 am
(11) Deanne says:

@Greg…great idea….a lot of companies do just that now, give a “voters prize” to still draw people to their site, but the entries are judged and selected by their own judges panel.

Maybe this will serve to educate some sponsors to avoid this same scandal in future. Although they could just google and come up with all kinds of sponsors that were stuck with accusations of “cheating” because of vote soliciting. ;-)

October 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm
(12) suntasticgah says:

Is there a standard definition for vote farming?

October 2, 2012 at 3:12 pm
(13) Sandra Grauschopf, Guide to Contests says:

Suntasticgah, I wondered, too. With a Google search, I could not find an authoritative-looking definition. I saw some people on some forums saying it was asking for votes. I saw others saying it was using a bot or automated system to vote. I’m going to try to look into it more, because if it’s a term that contests are using, it should really have a definition that people can understand.

October 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm
(14) Di Coke says:

I blog about contests in the UK and campaign passionately against all forms of public voting, even when they are combined with judging. There are just too many opportunities for cheating, sabotage and rule-bending (by both the entrants and the promoters). I’ve even created an infographic to share – and it is making a difference, big companies are changing their minds and judging/choosing at random instead. Let’s hope that’s the way forward, as voting contests are nothing but stress for the people involved.

October 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm
(15) Jade says:

Posting a vote request in an internet contest forum is vote farming. Not sure how/why that isn’t clear to some, because it seems obvious to me.

October 2, 2012 at 6:17 pm
(16) Sandra Grauschopf, Guide to Contests says:

Jade, I’m unfamiliar with the origin of that term. Do you have any source that defines vote farming? In your opinion, does it apply to any other ways of requesting votes?

October 2, 2012 at 7:53 pm
(17) Jade says:

Hello, no, it’s just common sense to me. Trying to rake in or “harvest” as many votes as possible by posting in sweepstakes voting forums. The dude also alluded to that he would return votes and that they could win a trip when they voted. Obvious inducement, even if “vote farming” is a somewhat undefined word. If he had just posted a vote request without those things I don’t think he would have been DQd, even though the voters were unlikely real “forum friends” as he claimed..He had just joined the site shortly before he posted the vote request.

October 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm
(18) suntasticgah says:

In my opinion, if they are going to use undefined phrases and site those sections, then he should be given the prize he won.

October 5, 2012 at 1:40 am
(19) CINDY HOOPER says:

Mr Scott won that prizes fairly and he should get it. Keep up the good work in sweeping and win

October 5, 2012 at 7:54 am
(20) Alison says:


I am so sorry that you didn’t win. I voted for your video several times during this contest. There is no question that your video and essay were the best of all of the entries. I’m sorry, but many of the videos were silly, didn’t make sense, and looked unprofessional. Your video was professional, stayed on topic, and was a high quality finished product. I will certainly sign the petition to have you reinstated as the winner of this contest. If this is the way Gold Peak Tea handles their contests, I don’t think I’ll be buying their product any time soon.

October 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm
(21) latoya says:

I think this is totally unfair that Theodore did not win.

I guarantee you that probably every person in the contest probably used some sort of voting forum to get votes. How else could you possibly get hundred or thousands of votes?

If the purpose of a sweepstakes is to help companies get more exposure, then the more people who vote, the more exposure the company gets. As long as a contestant is not paying for votes or using bots to get votes, it really should not matter.

November 2, 2012 at 11:47 pm
(22) diana says:

I agree that most of the time voting is involved thst the best winner rarely gets the prize. It’s sad to see a lame entry that has no creativity trump others that clearly put thought and effort into their entry. I know it is a good way for sponsers to get more PR, but it is also discouraging to those that entered to see a rotten entry win.

Maybe if voting counted for 5 or 10 percent and the rest was on content , it would be a better alternative.

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