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Promotional Contests: Winners or Losers?

By Newsletter

Traditionally, consumer promotions featuring games of chance, lotteries and sweepstakes have generated new sales and given Franchisors increased brand name recognition. In fact, an article in The Wall Street Journal noted sweepstake sites were a growing segment of the Internet. Sounds like a winner doesn’t it? It can be a winner if your company follows the rules.

Almost every state has codified a set of rules to regulate promotional contests. At the federal level, various agencies are empowered to initiate enforcement actions where prize, chance and consideration are inherent in the contest.  Internationally, our neighbors to the north in Canada prohibit any pure game of chance. In Latin America countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Columbia, promotional contests require prior governmental approval. This is also true of many European and Asian countries.

In a world filled with complex governmental regulations and judicial decisions, which vary from one area to the next, is there a “bright-line rule” to guide us? Fortunately, the answer is yes. As a general rule, to fall within a regulated activity the promotion must encompass each of the following: 1) a prize; or 2) chance, with mandatory consideration. A prize usually connotes anything of value awarded to the contestant. The value only has to be minimal. Thus, even discount coupons awarded may be sufficient to fulfill the definition. Chance refers to some random means of determination.  Perhaps the most striking example of this random determination is the Reader’s Digest and Publisher’s Clearing Sweepstakes. Consideration may be the most unsettled area of the “bright-line rule” because one would normally believe it had to be in a monetary form, for example, the purchase  of  a  product. This  approach  is actually followed in the majority of states. But there are several states that have taken the approach that the consideration may also be non-monetary. In these states the mere completion of an informational questionnaire may trigger the state’s definition of consideration.

To ensue compliance with our “bright-line rule,” creative marketers have skillfully crafted contests which focus on eliminating either chance or mandatory consideration. By making the contest a game of skill, the contestant is judged on their ability to perform an act. For instance, a contest involving “trivia” judges a contestant on their ability to correctly answer questions, thus the element of chance is eliminated. The second method commonly used is the elimination of mandatory consideration. By offering consumers a choice, the criteria of “mandatory” is eliminated. We all have seen this approach in the Pepsi and Coca-Cola games of chance or in any number of franchised fast food restaurant games. The customer is provided a game card when they make a purchase, but the contest also allows anyone to send off for a free card without any purchase. Thus, there is an alternative means of entering the promotional contest without any required purchase – no mandatory consideration.


Promotional contests can be a big winner for your franchise company and your franchisees if you have properly planned in advance. Begin your plan by making sure franchise legal counsel is a part of your planning team. A well-laid plan will make your company a winner rather than the next defendant in a lawsuit.

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