Sweepstakes snafu puts spotlight on promo shop

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A run-of-the-mill scratch game turned out to be a ticket to a publicity nightmare for a New York newspaper last week, turning attention on the little-discussed marketing practice of sweepstakes and a 46-year-old promotions firm not accustomed to the spotlight.

The New York Daily News was hit with lines of irate readers and sniping from crosstown circulation rival New York Post when an error in its Scratch `n' Match contest led thousands of readers to believe they'd won money-up to $100,000 in some cases-that they hadn't. After raising the ire of readers, the tabloid came back with a $1 million-plus pool giving those the would-be winners a chance for cash.

In unsigned items apologizing to readers, in a bylined article and in its dealings with the press, the Daily News heaped the blame onto its promo shop of 33 years, D.L. Blair, based in Garden City, N.Y., and owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. But the odd, human nature of the error-a young staffer typed in a 13 instead of 12 when transmitting the winning number to the paper-led agency chairman Thomas Conlon to come up empty when asked how this could have been avoided.

"The only thing we can change, because we have so many redundancies already, is to increase the number of redundancies in proofing," he said. "We thought we had an ample redundancy, but I guess we needed at least one more."

From a legal standpoint, the Daily News is pretty well covered. The game's official rules provide for just this scenario, calling for a random judging from all valid prize claims in the case of printing, production and other kinds of errors. To make amends to readers, the paper went further than it had to in part to counteract the major blow of negative press attention, all the more stinging because the Daily News positions in the corner of its readers.

RULES REVIEW VITAL

"Many of these things are governed by the PR aspect of it and that may be more important than the legal aspect," Brian Heidelberger, partner at the law firm Winston & Strawn, which represents both marketers and agencies in the promotional arena. "How you handle these crises from minute one is critical from both perspectives."

Mr. Heidelberger said the incident was an illustration of the importance of rules that are often thought of as "boilerplate or "standard." As a result, he said, legal review of those official rules is vital.

The newspaper, except for involvement in initial planning stages, left the administration of the game up to D.L. Blair, said Daily News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. She added that an investigation is ongoing and it remains unclear whether the Daily News will continue to work with the agency or use games as a marketing practice. While legal action is a possibility, the newspaper is now footing the bill for the pool, she said.

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