Tag Archives: ethics

Six Guidelines for Running an Ethical Contest in Social Media

ACT ETHICALLYCross-posted from my blog Public Relations Matters.

As many of my readers may recall, I was a participant in a social media contest earlier this year that went horribly wrong, in oh-so-many ways. In fact, it went so poorly that the company didn’t even publicize the results of the contest in its own social media channels (though it did issue a standard news release). I found myself frustrated when my repeated attempts to provide helpful advice to the contest sponsor were dismissed. And I learned a LOT from this experience that may help your organization should you desire to plan a contest in social media.

So what I have for you here are six things I learned during that catastrophe about running an ethical contest in social media. Following these guidelines may help turning your brand ambassadors into your “assadors,” as one of my Facebook friends called them.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, nor am I giving legal advice. I am just sharing my understanding of the guidelines.


Learn, understand and apply the disclosure guidelines that the Federal Trade Commission has published. As the FTC says, “If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.” Put simply, if you are incentivizing people to mention your company online (by providing them with something free OR having them mention something specific to enter a contest of yours), they need to say so. And it’s up to YOU to be sure they do.

The FTC provides a handy, dandy mnemonic to help:

  • Mandate disclosure from your contestants. (See my post “In the Interest of Full Disclosure” for more on this.)
  • Make sure your own staff knows the rules, and
  • Monitor the contestants, to be sure they are following the guidelines.


Don’t ask or require participants to “stage” something as a way of endorsing your product or company. Doing so is creating false advertising.


Know and follow the terms of service for the social media platforms you are using in your contest.

Did you know . . .

  • businesses should not ask for reviews or endorsements on Yelp?
  • if you’re having participants create a video to post on YouTube, you must provide clear judging criteria, and you must not use video views or video likes to conduct the contest?
  • requiring participants to post something on their personal  timelines to enter a contest violates Facebook’s terms of service?
  • you can’t use Facebook Likes or Shares as a voting mechanism?
  • you should not ask contestants to tweet something multiple times for multiple entries, or the contestant risks being  suspended for Twitter spam?
  • and for more examples, see Social Media Promotion Law: Contests and Sweepstakes.


Follow your own contest rules and guidelines to the letter. Varying from them will cause frustration among the participants at a minimum, and a run-in with the FTC or state for more egregious errors.

  • If you are asking contestants to create a 30- to 45-second video, then award points only to those whose videos are within these parameters. No exceptions.
  • If you have in your contest rules that “no additional purchase is necessary,” do not require contestants to purchase specific items for photos they must post.
  • If you provide a calendar of social media posts that your participants must publish on specific days, use that calendar; do not make last-minute changes. (In the contest I participated in, this happened more than once. One of the days, the participants were supposed to create a specific video to post on YouTube. Videos take time to shoot and edit. The day the assignment was due, the contest manager changed the assignment to something totally different . . . and never had the video used at all as an entry. This caused much frustration among the participants, as you might imagine.)


Provide objective criteria for judging entries, especially when the entries will be judged by a panel chosen by your organization. Having your panel vote for which entry they “like best” doesn’t cut it.

As a professor, I tend to use rubrics to grade assignments. (A rubric states what the criteria are and how many points can be earned by fulfilling the requirements.) A rubric would be helpful for participants in contests, as well.


Be available to answer questions from your contestants. Have one place the contestants can come to for official answers from your organization. Ideally, this would be a place on your own platform, rather than an informal Facebook group, for example.

Availability is especially important if you are running a lengthy, multi-part contest. Establish and maintain an expected turn-around time for answers. For example, if someone submits a question, respond within 24 hours.

Remember, in the absence of official communication, the contestants are left to speculate about the answers to their questions.


That said, what other recommendations do you have for making sure your organization’s social media contest is run in an ethical (and legal!) manner?




“Health” Kwest: Results Not Typical #HealthKwest

By Kourosh Zakeri
DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney, nor am I dispensing legal advice.  The information in this post is based on my understanding of FTC policies.
If you’ve read other posts on this blog, you know the Mongolian stir-fry restaurant chain Genghis Grill ran a contest February through April 2014 that it called “Health Kwest.” Well, it turned out that it wasn’t run, to my knowledge, following proper FTC disclosures (i.e. they had us run a deceptive hype in social media campaign), nor did it promote healthy weight loss. The final winner lost roughly 80 pounds in 60 days and posted on a public blog forum that he did it using unhealthy methods such as stimulants, diuretics, and dehydration. We brought these issues up to corporate, and despite that, he was still lauded as their winner. On top of all this, they just recently sent out an advertisement email about his weight loss and did not include any disclaimer of “results not typical,” or what the typical results can be from following such a diet/health plan — this too is blatantly against FTC policy — and in general poses a threat to public health/opinion about weight loss.
And there are other concerns:
  1. Genghis Grill had us post photos of us eating their food or having their drinks, but did not ask or recommend that we disclose that we were being sponsored by them.
  2. The rules stated that no additional purchases were necessary to increase odds of winning. Despite this, we had tasks that asked that post a photo of us enjoying one of their “Skinny Drinks” or a glass of One Hope Wine — which were not provided. A contestant brought this issue up — and in response she was advised to “stage” the photo.
  3. We asked if we need to disclose, and the contest manager said she would look into it, but never got back to the group as a whole. An email to one contestant, which we are not permitted to share, indicated that using the hashtag #healthkwest would be enough of a disclosure. The FTC differs on this, indicating that #sponsored or #ad, or a specific disclosure statement, are needed.
  4. Genghis Grill asked that we do a YELP review for one of our daily point based tasks — that’s against YELP policy for them to ask, and again we were not told we need to disclose our sponsorship.
  5. Rankings on the Leaderboard kept changing due to errors in reporting or recording of weight loss… we were never informed as to what was actually going on or why the rankings kept changing. Was Genghis Grill inputting weights wrong? Was there some error they were trying to not bring attention to?
  6. Last week, an email was sent out to all contestants to announce who the second place winner was… a couple hours later, they emailed that person and said he or she actually had NOT won second prize afterall. They didn’t inform the rest of the contestants of this — we only know through that person. To this day, they still have never publicly announced that the person they said won 2nd place ended up not winning and not getting the prize – that someone else did.
  7. Several contestants brought to the attention of Genghis Grill corporate management various posts made by the 1st place winner (before final results had come in) that he posted publicly how he will be using unhealthy methods (his own words) such as stimulants/diuretics and dehydration. He even bashed the entire contest principal and members — which is against the contest rules. Yet, Genghis Grill still awarded him 1st place.
  8. We tried contacting Genghis Grill about MANY issues and didn’t receive responses to half the items we would ask/inquire about, leaving contestants to speculate on their own.
  9. Genghis Grill posted the 1st place winner’s weight loss in ads/emails and did not disclose the typical expected weight loss or that his results aren’t typical – which appears to be blatantly against FTC policy.
  10. Genghis Grill is using PR Newswire to promote a press release on the winner. The press release has quotes by the winner saying how he has learned so much about healthy weight loss and such — all which drastically contradict his own blog posts he wrote during the 61 days of the competition. I contacted the editor of the article (Autumn) by phone; she said she would look into my concerns and evidence I gave her of the article misrepresenting the contest,and she has yet to get back to me.

PR Newswire Press Release link http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/genghis-grill-crowns-2014-health-kwest-winner-256158821.html

Below are some links on FTC policy…

Policy regarding disclosing being sponsored if asked to do social media campaigns http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus71-ftcs-revised-endorsement-guideswhat-people-are-asking

Policy regarding disclosing typical/expected results from a product (i.e. in this weight loss by eating GG for 60 days) http://ftc.uslegal.com/endorsements-and-testimonials-in-advertising/

On a more safety/wellness point, Genghis Grill did not set weight loss caps. This in turn promoted some of the contestants to do everything they could to try to win, creating an UNhealthy contest. Many national level weight loss programs (e.g. DietBet.com) set weight loss caps so people don’t resort to cheating or unhealthy methods to lose weight. Even previous contestants from last year’s contest asked Genghis Grill to set weight loss caps to make it more healthy — they didn’t.

So.. this is why I, and many others, are going out of our way to get his out there — that Genghis Grill did not promote healthy weight loss, awarded someone they knew had lost weight using unhealthy methods, and ignored FTC policy on disclosures.

Lastly, I’ve attached here, in his own blog posts, this year’s winner’s blog/forum where he posted about his methods. He deleted it, but many of us kept posts and had sent them to Genghis Grill’s corporate officers

Health Kwest: A Major, Inexcusable Embarrassment for Genghis Grill

by Pearson Hurst

Ok, so Health Kwest is over. I didn’t win, and I’m kind of glad now that I know the lengths the winner went to. More on that in a bit. Pearson Hurst   When I first heard about Health Kwest, I thought it was a fantastic idea, and just the kind of motivation I needed to lose some weight and get back to a healthier lifestyle. As a child, teenager and into my 20s, I had been thin, fit and active, but as the realities of adulthood, a career and parenthood became the focus of my life, fitness, activity and a slim figure slowly slipped away, and I wanted them back!

While I was indeed successful at losing a fair bit of weight, becoming more active, and eating a much healthier diet, Health Kwest wasn’t what I expected. Before the contest even officially started, I should have seen what was coming. There were problems from the very beginning. Admittedly small ones, but they were just a sign of things to come. After being selected as a contestant, I received an email from Jackie Heath, Genghis Grill’s Social Media/PR Marketing Manager welcoming me to the contest, and including several sets of instructions. As this was an official communication for Genghis Grill, I was somewhat surprised to see that many of the included attachments were riddled with misspellings, poor grammar and punctuation, including officially welcoming us to the 3rd annual Health Kwest, when in fact this was the 4th annual Health Kwest.

Silly mistakes, certainly, but it was enough to make me wonder how the next 60 days would go.

Genghis Grill partnered with a company called EMSI to handle weigh-ins at the beginning, middle and end of the contest. We were told that EMSI had branches in all the cities that had contestants. I showed up at my local branch to weigh in at the beginning of the contest, and was informed that the local branch only does drug screening, and that the closest location that could weigh me was in Virginia Beach, over 2 hours away. Evidently I wasn’t the only one with this issue, and we were told that if there was no EMSI location within 60 miles of us, we could just use a local clinic for weigh ins. To my mind, this presents several issues. First, I have never been to a clinic or “Doc in a Box” type facility that doesn’t charge for services. Second, this arrangement vastly increases the ease of which a contestant could alter the results of the weigh in, since it was up to the individual contestants to fax the forms in to Genghis Grill and the EMSI main office. I am lucky enough to work at a job with healthcare facilities right here on the premises, so I didn’t have to pony up a co-pay to be weighed in, but it would have been EXCEEDINGLY easy for me to falsify the forms I faxed to Genghis Grill and EMSI.

Amongst the instructions we received from Jackie, was a note about a welcome package we would be receiving. It noted that due to human error, there may be things missing from our package. Again, a small annoyance, but a sign that things weren’t entirely squared away on the part of Genghis Grill, especially since there was no list of what was to be included. How are we supposed to let them know if something is missing if we don’t know what’s supposed to be in there? I still have no idea if I got what I was supposed to.

One thing that WAS in my package was my Health Kwest card. This is what I was supposed to use every day at Genghis Grill to get my free meal. Imagine my embarrassment when, on my first official trip, my card would not work! Fortunately, the folks at my local restaurant were kind enough to comp my meal and email Genghis Grill corporate on my behalf, so I would get credit for my meal. A bit later that day, I found out that I was not the only one. Evidently Genghis Grill had neglected to actually credit our cards with our free meals. A rather embarrassing issue to have on day one!

As many of you are probably aware, Health Kwest has two basic components. The first is weight loss, with points being given to contestants based on the percentage of their body weight lost. The second half is comprised of a variety of Social Media tasks. We were to complete one task a day, based on a calendar provided to us by Genghis Grill.

Successfully completing the task earned us varying amounts of points. The rules regarding the Social Media tasks given to us were clear. They state, in part “You must complete the task with 100% effort. If you do not complete the task with all requirements, no points will be given.” Seems pretty clear, however Genghis Grill opted not to follow their own rules, on multiple occasions. The most glaring example of this occurred during the first BIG task we had to complete. A task which was the first of three tasks that could potentially earn contestants a “mini-prize” worth approximately $500-$600. The task required us to shoot a video of us doing own own “Genghis Grill Dance, in front of your location. Get your family, friends and staff involved and upload your video to YouTube.” There were a wide variety of really creative videos submitted, many of which clearly showed time and effort had been spent on them, and that included all of the requested elements. Evidently, all of that work was unnecessary, as at least one contestant submitted a 6-second video of them wagging their finger at the camera out in front of their store. This submission, and as far as I can tell, ALL of the submissions received full credit for completing the task.

Genghis Grill went out of their way to come up with very specific tasks for us to complete, and then ignored their own criteria in giving credit for these tasks.

While we are talking about the tasks eligible for “mini-prizes,” most of us found it very disappointing and frustrating that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason when it came to deciding on who actually won them. There was no judging criteria given for deciding the winner of the first task. The second task was also a video, and this time there was an allusion to the number of views being a factor as well as a subjective judging by Genghis Grill. In a clear lack of understanding Social Media, and Facebook in particular, the last task eligible for a “mini-prize” was a Facebook post, and the winner would be decided based on the number of “shares” a post got. On Facebook, you can share your own posts until your heart is content, and each one counts. It would have been possible for someone with enough time to sit there and share their own post over and over again, racking up thousands of shares. This was clearly not well thought out, and should NEVER have been used as the criteria for deciding the winner of anything, much less t task worth hundreds of dollars.

The Social Media tasks we were required to perform were, in fact, the source of many issues, in fact. At the beginning of the contest, we were provided a calendar of tasks to complete, so we could plan ahead, as several of them required quite a bit of work and advanced planning. On more than one occasion, these tasks were arbitrarily changed. One task in particular, another video that required a significant input of time and effort was canceled the day it was due and replaced with a different task, resulting in wasted time and energy on the part of the contestants.

The Social Media tasks we had to complete, involved a lot of posting to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms. Typically these tasks required us to speak highly of Genghis Grill or one of their offerings. We were never asked to include verbiage that clarified we were being compensated for these posts, which is unethical, and in the case of several of these sites (Yelp, in particular), are contrary to the Terms Of Service everyone must agree to in order to create an account.

In addition to these issues with our required Social Media activities, there were several tasks that required contestants to spend money at Genghis Grill, even though ‘No purchase is necessary” to win. In particular, I was, at one time or another required to purchase a glass of wine, a glass of tea, a bottle of Vitamin Water, three “skinny drinks”, and entry fees to a 5k race. I estimate that I spent approximately $100 over the course of the 60-day contest to meet their requirements. This issue was brought up to Genghis Grill who suggested we “stage” these pictures at the restaurants if we didn’t want to spend money on their products. We weren’t informed that this was a possibility until the very last task that required a purchase.

Communications from Jackie and Genghis Grill were, at times, unprofessional, and many times instructions, updates and clarifications were only posted to a Facebook group that had less than half of the participants included in it. So far, these issues have ranged from minor, nit picking by me to moderate annoyances during the contest.

Now it’s time to tackle what, to me, are major, major issues that MUST be addressed by Genghis Grill should they continue to sponsor this event.

First, there were major errors in the reporting of results after both the mid-point weigh in and the final weigh in. Multiple contestants had to request their information be reviewed and adjusted. Edits to the leader board continued for days after the mid-point weigh in, and continued for nearly a WEEK after the final weigh in, even after they had officially announced the winners of the contest. As you can imagine, this certainly raises some doubts about the accuracy of points and weights tabulated for everyone, for the duration of the contest. In fact, Genghis Grill sent an email to all of the contestants announcing the winner and second place prize winner, and then contacted their announced second place winner to tell her she had, in fact, won nothing at all. There was no correction email, and, as far as I know, as of now, there has been no updated announcement regarding who won the 2nd place prize. This is the 4th year Genghis Grill has run this contest. You would certainly think they had long since worked out such major, contest disrupting issues, but evidently not, since the exact same problems were evident after the first and second weigh-ins.

This should be a MAJOR, INEXCUSABLE embarrassment for Genghis Grill and those responsible for running this contest.

Finally, what I find to be the most disturbing, appalling part of this whole affair. The person they announced as the winner of the contest lost over 25% of his body weight (some 76+ pounds) in 60 days. At first blush, this is an astounding accomplishment, until you understand how it was achieved. The winner readily admits to taking stimulants (at one point overdosing), diuretics, intentionally dehydrating and starving himself, discarding much of his Genghis Grill food and taking other extremely risky, unhealthy steps in order to win. Not only that, but he openly admitted to wanting nothing to do with Genghis Grill, and only wanting their prize money. Not exactly someone I would want representing MY company. While the winners actions were certainly risky and unhealthy, the truly appalling part of all of this is, none of it was against the rules. In fact, there Are no rules regarding the weight loss portion of the contest. None. At all. You want to take tons of stimulants? Go ahead! Want liposuction? Want a Lap band? Want to have a leg amputated? Knock yourself out! Want to starve and dehydrate yourself to the point of organ damage or hospitalization? Go to it, as long as those weigh loss numbers look good in the PR and advertising materials after the contest!

The truth of the matter is, Genghis Grill doesn’t give one tiny bit about the people participating in their contest. Over the last 4 years, the winner of the contest has gotten more and more extreme in their methods and weight loss numbers. These concerns have been brought to Genghis Grill every year after the contest is over, yet they completely refuse to take even the most basic steps to address these concerns.

They could do so many simple things, such as cap the percentage of weight lost they will count in the contest. Include other health factors in deciding the winner, such as BMI, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, resting heart rate recovery time or any number of other markers of improved health. Even something as simple as having even the most basic medical supervision during the contest (at the very least, we should have been required to get a physical prior to starting the contest).

They are completely refusing to take the health and well-being of their contestants into account, despite the fact that this contest is billed as a “Health” Kwest.

The last gripe I have with Genghis and their contest, is the fact that now that it’s over, and the PR machine has started cranking up, they are plastering the winner and his results all over the place. They have issued press releases, flooded social media, etc, but not once have they mentioned that the winners results are not typical (and were, in fact negligently dangerous), which is in clear and direct violation of FTC rules on endorsements and testimonials.

Whew! That ended up being a LOT longer than I thought it would be. With all of that being said, I want to be clear that, for the most part, I enjoyed Health Kwest. I have already returned to Genghis Grill to eat since the contest has been over, and in fact brought my local store’s staff and management a big old batch of homemade cookies. My staff and managers were nothing but friendly, supportive and helpful during Health Kwest, and I anticipate continuing to patronize their store.

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Pearson asked me to publish this post on his behalf.