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Sales Promotions, Competitions and Lottery Disasters


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Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 15.53.45Promotional games can be a powerful friend to today’s marketer – or a deadly enemy if mishandled. John Donovan picks his way carefully through a potential minefield

Games are one of the most powerful promotional weapons available.

But when they make headlines, it is no always good news – as the Mirror Group Esso, Asda and Cadbury Typhoo found to their cost recently when their games had to be curtailed or withdrawn. The media take a disproportionate interest in such disas­ters, often giving them front-page coverage to the exclusion of more important events.

It is still not clear what went wrong with Esso’s Noughts & Crosses game, but reports indicate that too many prizes, big and small, were claimed in the first days of the launch, and a printer’s error is thought to be responsible.The AsdaCash game seemed to have a flaw on the Cashcards, and syndicates of competitors ”broke” the Typhoo Cashpot game.

The immediate cost of getting a game wrong can run into millions, but the damage done can be even greater in the long term. A disaster game can cause enormous harm to a brand by tarnishing an image that may have been carefully and expensively built up over many years. In some cases further damage can be done if, for example claims have to be deferred because of litigation with the game’s suppliers.

The mistakes made in the past ten years in some disaster games are astonishing to a games specialist. For example, there was the quiz game with no game variations, so competitors only had to remove the scratch­ off material from one game piece to be able to answer all the questions on the next.

The Mirror was acutely embarrassed when it published an incorrect combination of “called numbers” for its bingo-typegame resulting in a long queue outside its office one Saturday morning, with thousands thinking they had won a big prize.

Don Marketing’s file is full of such stories, and nearly always the chief cause is a lack of expertise in a complex matter. After decades of experience, marketers in the US would not dream of relying solely on advertising or promotional agencies to run a promotional game, as happens in the UK. Instead they or their agencies brief one of the several specialist games companies.

Most disaster games are the result of inexperience and a failure to recognise the important distinction between the specialist printing needed for game pieces and the printing needed for ordinary promotional material. Indeed producing game pieces often needs tighter security than printing currency, because higher denominations are involved.

The security of printing game piece includes the need to avoid printing too many winners, misregistration and vari­ations in colour and size. See-through and other flaws can result in “winner pick-out” – that is, the identification of winners at any stage before distribution to consumers. See-through can also enable people to get skill and probability games right every time. 

Many other pitfalls must be avoided. Security has to be a a priority at all stages, from the moment the game is created to when the prizes are paid. Taking all these requirements into account, it is often unfair of a promoting company to put the burden of responsibility solely on the print buyer, who is rarely experienced in this specialised work.

It is crucial for the company to be aware of all the potential hazards right from the start. For instance, it is important to know how many outlets there will be and the maximum number of game pieces to be stocked at anyone outlet. These figure determine the number of game variations necessary to avoid a breach in the game’s security.

Another vital matter is whether the game will be legal. For example, a game that is deemed to be illegal can result in criminal charges under the Lotteries Act being brought against the directors of the game promoter.

Another requirement is that consumers must be able to understand easily how to play the game. So the game mechanic and play instructions must be unambiguous. The game mechanic must also be checked to make sure that it does not breach a patent application or a patent that has been granted. Several game techniques are protected in this way in several countries, such as Don Marketing’s Match the Experts. Even the proposed name for the game should be checked to ensure that it does not infringe a trademark or copyright. Shell’s Mastermind game was approved by the owners of that name, whereas a national newspaper that tried to use Mastermind in its promotion was prevented from doing so at a late and embarrassing stage.

There is a new phenomenon that also has to be considered, particularly in skill games. This is the emergence of professio­nal competitors, syndicates and bureaux in the past two years or so. Many of their names are on Don Marketing’s computer files and they operate in most parts of the country.

Some even advertise in specialist compe­titors’ magazines, saying that they will buy used game pieces.

This enables them to build up a “library” of the variations of a game so that they can break it. They then advertise that, for £5 and an unused game piece with the person’s name and address written in the appro­priate place, they will turn it into a winner and post it to the claims address. There have also been attempts to use computers to break games.

With such people watching for their chance, great care must be taken with skill games to ensure that game breakers are restrained and their influence minimised. This can be done by using hi-tech printing to produce millions of variations, with built-in security.

A specialist games company can often save a lot of money on printing by structu­ring the game mechanic and rules so that it is possible to use conventional printing.

For one big game recently, in which every game piece was a potential winner – the most tempting challenge to a would-be game breaker – it was possible to save the client nearly £500,000 on the print costs, which was used to boost prizes and the promotion’s appeal.

The main objective must nevertheless be to ensure that the effort is not worth the reward for any game breaker and this should always be remembered when a game is being developed. For this reason the use of sophisticated printers may be unavoidable. The more advanced offer ink-jet, computer-controlled, hidden imaging, which can generate millions of different game combinations printed on foil-coated stock which cannot be penetrated.

Promotional games are popular because they let consumers know immediately whether they have won and so have an advantage over traditional competitions which most people consider boring and not worth the trouble of entering. Many games have had spectacular results – for instance the Shell Make Money game in 1984, which is claimed to have lifted sales by more than 25 per cent, and the Great Guinness Chal­lenge, said to have boosted sales of draught Guinness by 30 per cent at a time when the brand was not even advertised on TV.

However, the division between success and disaster can be fine. British marketers who want the advantages of promotional games but not the risks to their brand or perhaps even their own jobs should there­fore insist on using a specialist games company with a good track record. Similarly the wise executive in either a sales promotion consultancy or an ad agency should think twice before risking his and his client’s reputation – and profits.

The above *article by John Donovan was published by Marketing Week magazine on 11 October 1985

News media reports of sales promotions, competitions and lotteries the ended in disaster

John Player Mild Cigars SPORTS QUIZ (Scratch cards) May 1981



John Player & Sons regret that errors have been found in some of the question and answers combinations in the Sports Quiz inserts. A full list of inaccurate questions and answers will be announced in press advertising and full lists will also be made available to John Player cigar retailers.

Chef & Brewer Free Drinks Contest: Daily Mirror 31 March 1983


A PUB chain has scrapped a freer drinks contest because it has cost them thousands of pints of beer.

Cadbury Ty-phoo Promotional Game Disaster: July 1984

The Ty-phoo tycoons lose their pot of gold: Daily Express 20 July 1984


HUNDREDS of would-be winners of a Ty-phoo tea contest are to be told that they will not get their cash prizes. The Daily Express revealed last month that the contest had become a disaster for the companyafter some entrants clubbed together to devise a system which guarantees a £20 win on almost every box of tea bags bought.

Typhoo counts losses from tea bag promotion: Marketing Week 27 July 1984


Cadbury Typhoo stands to lose a”substantial sum” after syndicates cracked its Typhoo tea bags promotional game, Cash Pot, launched in February. A total payout of less than £100,000 was predicated for the promotion, but trade sources say that the figure is likely to be “substantially more than £100,000 although not as high as £lm”.

Cadbury pays up in Typhoo game: Marketing Week 17 May 1985

A spokesman for the company says its insurers have issued a high court writ against Cadbury Typhoo.

Mansfield Brewery Passports Promotion: Sunday Telegraph article Sept 1983

A LOCAL public house promotion could cost an independent brewery in the Midlands more than £1 million for prizes.

General Mills Scrapped sweeps gets 300 ‘winners’: Advertising Age 11 June 1984

The match-and-win sweeps, advertised in newspaper inserts nationally on May 19 and 20, was canceled via another ad in the same papers a week later because too many winning game pieces were printed for some of the prizes and too few for others. That caused the winning odds to be misstated in the original ad. One source said that there might be millions of dollars in winning game pieces outstanding (AA, June 4).

McDonalds ‘Go For Gold’ Promotional Game: August 1984

McDonald loses out: Marketing Week 17 August 1984


The massive lead in gold, silver and bronze medals which America gained in the Los Angeles Olympics may not be such good news for McDonald’s. The hamburger chain ran a competition to coincide with the sports event which may turn out to be very expensive.

Big Mac and Cadbury pay over the odds: Daily Mail 30 August 1984


Unfortunately (for McDonald’s, though not for hamburger-lovers), the odds were calculated and the cards printed long before the Eastern bloc withdrew. Says Bob Keyser, of McDonald’s: “We certainly redeemed more prizes that we anticipated.’ Some McDonald’s were said to have run out of burgers…

A BIG BINGO BUNGLE AT THE MIRROR: The Sunday Telegraph 21 October 1984


THE SIEGE of Mirror Group newspaper offices in London last week by more than a thousand readers, all under the delusion that they had won £5,000 on bingo in the Sunday Mirror, was not, I understand, the first brush Robert Maxwell’s new company has had with the laws of probability.

Associated Dairies (ASDA) Promotion: Marketing Week 28 June 1985

Sales promotion company Kingsland Lloyd Petersen is being sued for “substantial” da­mages by one of its major clients, Associated Dairies. The news, which coincided with slightly disappointing inte­rim figures, was sufficient to knock more than 20 per cent off the company’s market capitali­sation of £l6.6m on Friday. Details of the litigation re­main somewhat unclear. It concerns a KLP subsidiary which handled a promotion for Associated Dairies some months ago. Part of the work was farmed out to a West German printer and it is believed that errors made by the printer caused the promotion to fail.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 16.12.44Esso / Exxon Noughts and Crosses Game Disaster 7 Sept 1985

Esso scratches £1m garage card game: The Times Saturday 7 Sept 1985


Esso Petroleum aborted a £1 million “Noughts and Crosses” promotion campaign yesterday which was launched on August 28. Mr Archie Forster, the chairman, ordered all petrol stations to stop issuing the cards after learning of technical problems on Thursday. The company refused to discuss for “security and contractual” reasons the premature demise of what was billed as “probably the simplest scratch-card game that had been seen on British forecourts.” “…one source in the oil industry believed that as’ many as 17 apparent winners had claimed prizes of £100,000 each in 24 hours…

ESSO’S BIG GAME AT PUMPS IS SCRATCHED: The Sun Sat 7 Sept 1985 ‘Too many winners blunder’


Esso yesterday scrapped its massive “noughts and crosses” promotions game being run on garage forecourts all over Britain . But last night Esso’s red-faced bosses refused to comment on rumours that trey had blundered by printing TOO MANY winning cards.

Prizes riddle as Esso scrap new £1m game: Daily Express Sat 7 Sept 1985

ESSO’S £1 mlllion “noughts and crosses” promotion was scrapped last night after the petrol giant suddenly withdrew every card from garages throughout Bntain.

ESSO SCRAP ‘UNFAIR’ £100,000 PRIZE GAME: The Mirror Sat 7 Sept 1985


A MILLION-pound game for motorists has been scrapped by Esso after only eight days. Thousands of scratch­ panel cards for the noughts-and-crosses game have been given away to motorists calling at Esso petrol stations. …a massive TV advertising campaign promoting the game will have to be scrapped.

Hitch crosses out prize game for fill-up drivers: Daily Mail Sat 7 Sept 1985


“Suddenly, a man from Esso came along and took all our cards away. He didn’t say why.” “People who may have won might not have recognised the fact and people who hadn’t might think they had.”

Esso Petroleum and the managing director of its sales promotion company Publicity Plus Terry McCarthy are to be sued for running two promotional games which it is claimed are the property of McCarthy’s former employer J&H International.

(One of the promotions being litigated was the Noughts and Crosses scratch card game)

Beatrice refuses $16M claim in “Bea­trice Monday night winning lineup” : Advertising Age 16 December 1985


Now, an Atlanta math whiz, who happens to be a Procter & Gamble salesman, claims Beatrice owes him $16 million in the “Bea­trice Monday night winning lineup” point-of-purchase promotion… Mr. Maggio flew to Los Angeles Dec. 5, the day before the contest was to end, to mail his cards to Lorsch because “there was no way I was going to stick $16 million worth of winning tickets in the mail during the Christmas season.” Beatrice has said it “has no intention of honoring” Mr. Maggio’s game cards. Mr. Maggio now com­putes his best chance of winning to be through a lawsuit.

Burger King “Triple Jump Checkers Game”: December 1988


C Donald Dempsey has been named as Burger King new marketing director. He takes over from Andrew Lavely, who was only appointed in March. Lavely was asked to resign, according to a company spokesman: observers said this was due to the failure of a promotion called Triple Jump Check­ers, in which the company was offering $140m in prizes.

Cracking the Burger King “Triple Jump Checkers” Game

Davenports Brewery: Brewery bottles out of contest: Today newspaper 28 December 1987


DRINKERS sank 250,000 free beers in three days after cracking a brewery competition code. They queued up to claim their prizes after scratching special panels from cards handed over the bar in 200 pubs. ‘I’he promotional game planned to last 12 days. was devised by mathematicians at Aston University, Birmingham. But it was called off after just 72 hours when drinkers worked out the winning sequence.

Bungled Guinness Promotions October 1988 and April 1989 as reported in The Sun

JOBLESS John Gallagher has discovered the secret of the FREE pint of Guinness – and damaged a £2million promotion campaign. Jolly John hasn’t stopped guzzling his favourite brew since he found it did not take pure genius to win Guinness’s “scratch and reveal” card quiz EVERY TIME. His trick is to shine a torch he bought for £1 from a market stall through the card. Amazingly, the beam shows up which box contains the “tick” for a right answer. Three ticks win a free pint of Guinncss which can be claimed immediately at the bar. A fourth right answer in a row collects TWO pints. “They thought I was some sort of scientific genius with an X-ray machine in my pocket.”

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PURE GENIUSES! Thumbs up as crafty pair fiddle free booze quiz (Sun newspaper April 1989)

CRAFTY Neil Weeks and Mark Mullane downed countless pints of free Guinness … by fiddling a “foolproor’ booze quiz. And last night brewery bosses were fuming after they found their promotion had gone wrong – for the second time in SIX MONTHS. Neil and Mark, both 26, took just one night to crack the new, loop­ hole-free quiz – called Master of Pure Genius.

Kraft “Ready to Roll” promotion: Everyone’s a Winner (Oops): Time magazine 26 June 1989

Kraft made a lot of its customers ecstatic last week, then made them furious. Hundreds of people thought they had won the grand prize: a $17,00 Dodge Caravan.

Kraft has to cough up… Marketing Week 30 June 1989

Kraft has had to dig deep into its pockets after a consumer promotion went awry. The contest, “Ready to Roll”, came to a grinding halt when it was discovered that a printing error had made almost every­-one a winner in the Chicago and Houston areas…

Beating The Odds: Virginia State Lottery: Time Magazine article 9 March 1992

Virginia lottery officials suspect that an Australian investor group, which regularly places huge sums of money in foreign lotteries, was behind the mass purchase. The group apparently located Virginia lottery outlets that were willing to churn out mass quantities of tickets in order to reap huge sales commissions.

Hoover’s free flights fiasco recalled

Hoover free flights promotion

Hoover in £7m image clean-up: Marketing 11 July 1996


Hoover is to spend £7m on a campaign to revamp its brand name in the UK in its biggest marketing effort since the ‘free flights’ disaster four years ago. The promotion, which offered free airline tickets for every purchase, backfired and cost Hoover £48m. It led to the company being taken over by Italian electrical giant Candy last year.

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WHERE’S THE CATCH: National Federation of Anglers Competition: Daily Mirror Friday 27 March 1992

Budweiser promotion loses its head: Sales Promotion Magazine Aug/Sept 1992


Anheuser-Busch looks set to lose millions over a defective summer promotion for Budweiser beer. The campaign, called ‘Bud Summer Games’, offered consumers game tickets with prizes including jet skis and commemorative badges. However, a printing error resulted in twice as many winning tickets produced as A-B had originally intended.

Coca-Cola – “It’s the real thing, but then again perhaps not” Daily Mail article 19 April 1993

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Coca-Cola seeks advice from ASA after promotion confusion: PROMOTIONS & INCENTIVES APRIL 1993

Pepsi-Cola: Two die in in great cola prize fiasco: Daily Express 28 July 1993


A GIRL of five and a teacher have died in violence sweeping the Philippines after Pepsi-Cola bungled a sales campaign to make one of their customers a millionaire. Pepsi promised to pay one million pesos – nearly £30,000 – tax free to the customer who bought a bottle with 349 on the underside of the cap. The slogan “Today, you could be a millionaire!” was advertised everywhere until executives realised 800,000 §winning bottle tops had been printed. The cost of honouring: the pledge was put at £24 billion, so the firm offered £ 15 instead to anyone with a 349 cap. Barbed-wire barricades were erected around Pepsi plants and offices as mobs of “winners” charged the premises. But when more than 486,170 angry, customers arrived in Manila by boat, bus and plane from outer islands the firm halted all payments.

NUMBERS FEVER: A $32 billion bungle by Pepsi has furious Filipinos all fizzed up: Time Magazine 9 August 1993


Shell Germany had offered a free Kindle e-reader for 999 points to be earned when filling up. But also when buying a chocolate bar of € 1.29, this gave 100 points…. Buying 10 bars of chocolate and you had an e-reader. They ran out of Kindles after 3 hours!!!  Their website collapsed due to 40-fold traffic increase. Big disaster. Many people pissed off.

Promotions expert John Donovan was the co-founder of Don Marketing.

Promotions expert John Donovan was the co-founder of Don Marketing.

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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