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Contests Gone Wrong and Other Marketing Disasters

By Guest Blogger, Donna DeClemente, Donna's Promo Talk

Nancy-Upton Yesterday I was in New York City attending the 5th Annual Focus on Sweepstakes, Contests and Promotions Conference sponsored by the ACI, American Conference Institute. The focus was on the legal and regulatory issues regarding these types of promotions and the room was filled with corporate in-house lawyers. So I was one of those "Marketing" people that they referred to often as those that don't understand all the risks involved in running these promotions. However, I am one of the few that really does see both sides.

The conference included some great presentations and lots of content. We covered everything from capitalizing on social media and the various platform guidelines, to smart promotions for smart phones, to minimizing legal risks when conducing user generated contests and more. One interesting session was titled "When Good Ideas Go Wrong: Sharing War Stories and Disasters." Some examples discussed I have heard of before, such as what's now referred to as the "Kraft Clause" and featured in most Official Rules. This is when there was a printing error which resulted in hundreds of winning entries of a $100,000 grand prize when only one was planned.

Despite the technical issues that could possibly go wrong, running a user-generated contest poses many other risks. You have to make sure that the person who created a submission did not use any copyrighted materials or trademarks and clearly is the owner of the content they created. One example discussed was a photo contest in which the winner had a movie poster on the wall in the background and the runner-up challenged it. It was clearly a copyright infringement and they ended up awarding two prizes, one to the original winner who had already received the prize and another to the runner-up.

Greece Another issue with user-generated content is with false claims. One essay contest included an heart-breaking story of a woman and her daughter who claimed their husband and father was in the military in Iraq which proved to be totally false. Another example was a photo contest in which someone submitted a photo taken by a professional photographer that was copyrighted and they claimed they had taken the same photo while on a trip to Greece. They were disqualified.

The most recent example of a photo contest gone wrong is the one from American Apparel that was just featured on the Today Show. They were in search for a new plus-size model in which they opened up the contest to public voting and ended up with a very different winner then they expected. Nancy Upton, a The 24-year-old Texas student who is a size 12 submitted photos of herself making a mockery of the contest. She wanted to send a message to American Apparel that plus-size women would like to be treated the same as every other female, as beautiful, not as women who need “extra wiggle room,” who are “bootyfull, eat too much, are lazy and don’t take care of themselves,”.

Nancy upton 3 1 The photo that actually won was of her dousing herself in ranch dressing and lounging (in a sexy pose) in a tub full of the calorie-rich stuff. She also submitted photos of herself eating a large piece of chicken in a swimming pool and pouring a bottle of chocolate sauce into her mouth, missing her mouth by far. She can also be seen with a smashed pizza pie in her face and this one of a large pie between her legs.

American Apparel at first sent her a email that read in part that they were sorry that they could not award her the winning prize because they were looking for someone with beauty on the inside as well as on the outside. On the Today Show Nancy asked Anne Curry who was interviewing her, “Why would they market the same dress to you differently than they would to me?”

The blogosphere and media went wild with this story. The lesson here is that a company that runs a contest with a public vote should respect that vote. That is one reason that a company may first want to pick finalists and then open those finalists up for a public voting period. In this case though Nancy Upton was their primary target market and was trying to send them a message that they should have listened to more carefully. In the end though American Apparel has invited Nancy to come for a visit to their Los Angeles offices. She apparently is going but said that she would most likely decline any invitation to model for the company because of the way it treats plus-size women.

The lawyers at the conference did agree that in these types of cases it is best to get their PR and marketing people involved and not leave it to the in-house counsel. I agree with that. You can turn a wrong into a right if it's handled properly. So remember, listen to what your customers are saying even if you don't like it! I would not have the guts to do what Nancy did, but I do applaud her for speaking her mind.


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Debra Gaynor

What a missed opportunity by American Apparel. This woman obviously won the support of other plus-sized women -- in fact, of other women in general -- because her tongue-in-cheek approach made her relatable. Whether she posed with a pie between her legs or not, she would have made a great spokesmodel for the brand, which could use a little levity right now.

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