After working as a lawyer for 22 years, Theodore A. Scott wanted a break. So he entered a contest sponsored by Gold Peak Tea, a Coca-Cola tea brand, offering the ultimate respite for weary workers: a year off work and a $100,000 prize.
Mr. Scott, 60, made it to the second round for which he created a video that was voted on by Gold Peak Tea fans on Facebook. To his surprise, he won the grand prize. He and his family were elated.
“Everybody is shouting and laughing and crying and so happy,” Mr. Scott said. “It’s just like we won the Super Bowl or won the lottery.”
But the feeling was short-lived. Days later, Mr. Scott was informed that he had violated the terms and conditions of the contest and was disqualified. The reason given was that he had used an online contest forum, a Web site where people who enter crowdsourced digital sweepstakes post links to those contests and ask members to vote for them.
But Mr. Scott did not go away quietly, and Gold Peak Tea finds that it is just the latest company to try to create excitement for its brand on social media only to find that sentiment can quickly turn.
The contest, called “Take the Year Off,” was one of several this year sponsored by marketers like McDonald’s and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority aimed at downtrodden workers looking for respite in a tough economy.
An image on Gold Peak Tea’s Facebook page promoting the contest that showed a woman kneeling against a file cabinet appearing to scream caught Mr. Scott’s attention. “I get it. I see where she is. I understand her,” he said in an interview last week. In his contest entry, Mr. Scott described how his job had taken him away from his family. “I had a family. I had a home,” Mr. Scott’s letter began. “But I let my career defer them. I let my debts outweigh them. I let deadlines sideline them. I let an office, computer, phone, and e-mails crush them.”
Mr. Scott pledged to spend the year off enjoying time with his family — he has four sons, four grandsons, and has been married for more than 35 years. “I’ll enjoy simplicity. Listen to music. Read. Write. Relax. And sip a glass of iced tea — at home,” he wrote in the essay.
In his follow-up video, Mr. Scott is seen at his desk, answering calls, books stacked on his desk, shuffling from office to office.
To increase his chances, Mr. Scott became a member of an online contest forum on About.com and made his pitch to the voters there. Susan Stribling, a representative for Coca-Cola, said the company declined to comment but pointed a reporter to a statement that had been posted on the company’s Facebook page. According to the statement, Mr. Scott had been disqualified for trying “to inappropriately induce members of the public to vote for his submission, a violation of Official Contest Rules.”
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.”
Sandra Grauschopf a sweepstakes consultant for brands and the writer of the contests and sweepstakes guide on About.com, said the issues with voter forums were complicated for companies. Brands are caught between wanting to drive traffic to their Facebook pages by encouraging consumer voting and managing how those votes are obtained, Ms. Grauschopf said.
“It’s a tough situation for them to be in,” she said of the companies hosting the sweepstakes. “On the other hand, they don’t want to have their image tarnished by other people saying that there is cheating going on.”
In a statement, ePrize, the company the administered the contest on behalf of Coca-Cola, said brands were seeing “success with promotional campaigns online, particularly in social and mobile channels.”
“But along with that, there will be more technologies developed and attempts to abuse the system,” the statement continued. “Of course, there are other instances in which people don’t intend to break the rules but simply do not follow them correctly.”
Mr. Scott, defended his use of the forum saying he saw nothing in the rules that prohibited someone from asking for votes. “These were real people,” he said. “Not robotics or the creation of fake Facebook accounts.”
Ms. Grauschopf agreed. “In my opinion, that’s not cheating if those are real people who aren’t being induced.”
Coca-Cola declined to say who tipped the company off to Mr. Scott’s methods.
Ms. Grauschopf said, “It sounds to me like they are saying, we don’t want the public relations problems.”
One such public relations disaster happened with another online voting contest involving American Apparel, the clothing company known for its risqué ads. In 2011, The company held a contest that asked readers to vote on who should be its plus-size model.
Nancy Upton, an entrant, submitted photos of herself in daring poses, including one where she was almost naked from the waist down and another where she was bathing in a tub of salad dressing.
In the end, Ms. Upton was voted the winner, much to the chagrin of American Apparel. After some back and forth, the company decided to select another candidate as the winning model.
In Mr. Scott’s case, Gold Peak Tea chose another entrant’s submission as the winner, despite a number of posts on the company’s Facebook page calling for Mr. Scott to be reinstated as the winner. (Gold Peak Tea has removed some of the posts related to Mr. Scott’s case citing its decency rules for the Facebook page.)
Mr. Scott has since posted a rebuttal on the Gold Peak Tea Facebook page, and has created a Twitter account to support his cause, @GoTeamTheodore. He said he is deeply embarrassed.
Linda A. Goldstein, a partner and chair of the advertising, marketing and media division at the law firm at the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips said there was “a very strong” legal precedent in the courts for upholding contest rules.
“There’s a broad discretion for the sponsor to disqualify an entrant,” said Ms. Goldstein, who has worked with Coca-Cola in the past. “The precedent in the courts for upholding the rules in the sponsor’s favor is quite strong.”