On August 27th, 2012, a lawyer from Georgia named Theodore Scott got some very good news; he was the $100,000 grand prize winner in Gold Peak Tea’s “Take the Year Off Contest.” Scott entered the competition last summer and when he made it to the second round he had to create a video explaining why he deserved a year off from work and a hundred thousand dollars. Members of the public voted on the finalists’ videos and Scott wound up getting the most votes. Here’s his submission. I can’t embed it so click the screenshot to watch it on AOL.com:
Click to view
Scott and his family were elated but the celebrating didn’t last long. Two days after he was contacted by the sponsor (and before the results were finalized or officially announced) a rep from Gold Peak Tea notified Scott that he was being disqualified because he tried to “inappropriately induce members of the public to vote for his submission, a violation of Official Contest Rules.” Gold Peak Tea has taken down the official rules for the “Take the Year Off” contest but the New York Times posted the section that cost Scott the grand prize:
In an e-mail to Mr. Scott, Sarah Tabb, an associate brand manager for Gold Peak Tea, cited Section 6B of the contest rules which states that finalists were prohibited from obtaining votes by “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.”
Gold Peak Tea (in their sole discretion) decided that Scott had violated the rules because he posted a link to his entry on About.com’s online “Vote Request” forum. These types of forums exist so that contest participants can swap votes with strangers who also need votes in other contests. This is a great way to get tons of real votes from real people. But there are two big downsides to swapping votes: First off, the more votes you cast, the more votes you earn. So you will have to spend hours and hours voting for other people’s stuff. But 20 or 40 hours of your time is a small price to pay for a big cash prize. The other downside is a little more serious; a lot of contest sponsors have caught on to “vote farming” and they are including stipulations in their rules that ban the practice. Companies like Gold Peak Tea use online voting in their contests because they want to generate more traffic or facebook likes. But a vote from a Vote Swapper is junk traffic. The Swapper doesn’t pay attention to the content. They just vote as fast as they can and then move on. Most of the About.com voters probably didn’t even watch Scott’s video and a lot of them probably unliked Gold Peak Tea’s facebook page as soon as the contest was over.
As you can imagine, Mr. Scott isn’t too happy about this situation. He feels that he was unjustly disqualified. Here’s what he said to his local paper back in October:
“They thought it was an inducement to members of the public. I saw nothing I did was an inducement,” Scott said. “This was my fellow forum members and forum friends, and friends help each other and friends support each other in causes. Members are not required to vote for each other.”
Scott was also upset because he felt Gold Peak Tea’s rules about Vote Swapping were vague. This is from his team’s Twitter account:
FYI: Coca-Cola Owns Gold Peak Tea
As of last October, Scott was planning on fighting Gold Peak Tea’s decision. He was considering a lawsuit and he and his supporters had managed to get his story a huge amount of media attention. They also started that twitter account (@GoTeamTheodore) and an online petition. And like all sore losers, they started posting angry messages all over Gold Peak Tea’s facebook page that said they’d never buy the product again.
Yeah that’s right, I said it…I think this dude is a sore loser. His arguments are total B.S. First of all, the guy is a LAWYER. It takes a lot of nerve for a lawyer to say that a contest’s official rules were “ambiguous.” I don’t think they could be any clearer. The rules stated in plain English that contestants couldn’t offer “inducements” to people to get them to vote. Furthermore, the rules specifically ban the practice of “Vote Farming.” I actually managed to find Scott’s About.com forum post. Let’s take a look at it:
For the record, Scott did NOT offer that Live Nation prize. That was a part of the contest.
Scott didn’t specifically say “I’ll vote for you if you vote for me” but his intentions seem clear. His forum post was pretty popular and you can read through it here. There are 26 pages of replies. If you dig through the comments, you will see that Scott posted dozens of messages like this:
That right there is what “vote farming” looks like. A member named “Jennyandenzo” posted a message saying that she voted for Scott and Scott wrote back to confirm that he returned the favor. The only reason “Jennyandenzo” voted in the Gold Peak Tea contest is because she knew she’d get something in return. To go back to Scott’s quote to his local paper, he said “This was my fellow forum members and forum friends, and friends help each other and friends support each other in causes.“ But the people on these forum aren’t friends. Usually they only interact on the vote swapping sites. When I read Scott’s quote I figured he was probably a long-time Vote Swapper who knew a lot of people in the community (yes, there’s a vote swapping community and it’s huge.) But according to Scott’s About.com profile, he signed up for the forum around the time that he made the finals in the Gold Peak Tea contest. So all of his “friends” on the forum were almost certainly complete strangers:
Eventually Gold Peak Tea declared that another contestant named Michael Simpson was the official winner and that he would receive the grand prize. Scott seems to feel that Simpson’s entry also violated the rules because it included copyrighted material. The winning video, as well as the official rules are no where to be found so I can’t really comment on that allegation. But Scott and his supporters certainly commented on Simpson’s win. Here’s just a small taste of how they reacted when Gold Peak Tea declared Simpson as the winner.
More than one of Scott’s friends theorized that Gold Peak Tea disqualified Scott because he was black. There’s no way that any reasonable person could believe that Gold Peak Tea would offer Scott the prize and then decide 2 days later they should give it to another guy just because he was white. But if you post a few comments like this on a brand’s facebook page, you might cause the right person to freak out:
Apparently Gold Peak Tea got a lot of comments that were much worse but the admin deleted them since they were obscene or otherwise inappropriate. To their credit, Gold Peak Tea didn’t censor the folks who posted complaints that didn’t include threats or profanity.
I completely understand why Mr. Scott was so upset about what happened to him. It must have been devastating to lose that $100,000 after two days of celebrating. The company that ran the contest, ePrize really should have verified that Scott had followed the rules before they contacted him. And if the winning video did violate the contest rules by including copyrighted material then that video absolutely should have been disqualified too. But in the end, the contest sponsor is always right. Some contest rules are stupid or pointless or arbitrary but it’s the contestant’s obligation to read and understand and follow all the rules. And if you get caught breaking those rules you have to accept the consequences like a man. Any lawyer will tell you (well, almost any lawyer) that the official rules of a contest are like the terms of a contract. The sponsor offers to do “A” if the contestant does “B,” “C,” and “D.” The rules of this particular contest even gave the sponsor the authority to disqualify someone “at their discretion.” If Scott didn’t like that fact then he shouldn’t have entered the contest in the first place. Or maybe he just didn’t bother to read the fine print. That seems pretty unlikely since Scott is an attorney. I think it’s more likely that he probably thought he could get away with the vote swapping if he chose his words carefully and never specifically said that he’d vote for anyone who voted for him.
Scott and his supporters were really pushing this story hard last fall but it seems like all of their activity stopped about two weeks after the New York Times story was published. These folks seemed very determined so I doubt they’d suddenly just drop the whole thing. Scott owns a law firm with his brother so filing a lawsuit would be cheap and easy for them. I’m guessing Coca-Cola’s legal department realized this guy wasn’t going to go away and so they offered him a settlement. I hope they didn’t though because it seems obvious to me that this guy lost fair and square.