Thursday, January 24, 2008

DOJ INVESTIGATION

Everybody's hard work is paying off! We've received word that at least one state Department of Justice investigation has begun with regards to the Home Depot $25,000 YouTube Contest. It is uncertain the outcome of such an inquiry, but it is good that Home Depot/Imre Communications will have to answer some hard questions about how they consider their contest to be run in good faith.

For those of you just catching up, Home Depot ran a contest on YouTube last December. When they announced the winner, participants and spectators alike complained that the winning video contained copyrighted material. According to their contest rules, such material would disqualify their entry. But instead of disqualifying them, Home Depot and Imre Communications allowed the winners a couple of days to re-edit their video (after the contest was over) in order to qualify. This, despite the fact that they had disqualified another video for rules violations. When people complained further, Home Depot seemed to offer no new response on their contest site, and then shut down their message boards altogether. E-mail responses from Home Depot that we are aware of seem to be of cut-and-paste variety. If you have received any correspondence from Home Depot or Imre, please let me know at the email posted in the "profile" link to the right. You can read about this and more if you scroll down (keep in mind, you'll need to click on "Older Posts" at the very bottom to see all of the entries).

video

If you haven't done so already, please write to your Attorney General and ask them to investigate the conduct of this contest. It only takes a couple of minutes. If you need to know who your Attorney General is and how to contact them, click here. If you need a sample letter, feel free to use the template below and customize it to suit your personal situation:

Dear (Your State’s Attorney General),

I am writing with concern regarding a skills-based online contest conducted by Home Depot last December. The contest was hosted on www.youtube.com, and the winners were to receive awards in the amount of $200 and $25,000. Official Rules were posted on YouTube, and I entered in good faith, following those rules.

Upon completion of the contest on December 15th, 2007, Home Depot, in conjunction with Imre Communications, awarded the grand prize to a video that did not meet the contest rules, as it contained prohibited copyrighted material. Instead of disqualifying the entry, they allowed the winner to re-edit their video, after the contest was over. They accepted this newly edited submission (despite the fact that the rules state that any entry submitted after the contest deadline would be disqualified). To place this in further context, Home Depot and Imre Communications disqualified a different video (the Bork family from New York) for a rules violation, but then seemed to ignore their rules with regard to the winning video.

I do not believe Home Depot and Imre Communications acted in good faith in conducting this contest. Out of concern for the fairness and integrity of their online contest, I would ask that you investigate this situation.

Sincerely,

(Your Name Here)

RESOURCES:

Home Depot
2455 Paces Ferry Road
Atlanta, GA 30339
1-770-433-8211

Imre Communications (Baltimore)
909 Ridgebrook Road
Suite 300
Baltimore, MD 21152
P 410.821.8220
F 410.821.5619

Imre Communications (Washington)
528 F Street Terrace SE
Washington, DC 20003
P 202.547.0500
F 202.547.5900

YouTube Contest Home Page
http://youtube.com/group/thdgiftcards

An online duplicate of the contest rules is available here, since Imre Communications removed them shortly after the contest ended.
http://www.freesamplesite.com/ydf/showthread.php?s=d1456d884dc5e43739b7d9af84ecee9f&p=1525233#post1525233

Video proof of the copyright violations
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5UdPfQEPTI

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

FOR ALL ENTRANTS: THE RULES

Here's a quick post. Since Home Depot/Imre removed their contest rules from their website, click here for an easy-to-read copy for your own review and records.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

IT'S PAST DUE FOR ANSWERS

As tiresome as it can be to hash through the details of this contest"meltdown", I put together a synopsis of many of the points brought forth in this blog. Since the beginning, we've tried to validate the Home Depot YouTube contest decisions. So far, we haven't had much luck in disproving anything we suspected, except one... the fact that Home Depot probably had the right to delete all the messages on YouTube that contradicted their decision (still, not a great publicity move). Let's take a look at the battle against reality:

[1] HOME DEPOT/IMRE COMMUNICATIONS:
Official Rules state that entrants are prohibited from submitting copyrighted material

REALITY:
Winning video contained copyrighted material
[2] HOME DEPOT/IMRE COMMUNICATIONS:
Said the "very brief image" in question in the winning video didn't impact their judging

REALITY:
There were four, not one, images that were re-edited to avoid disqualification.

[3] HOME DEPOT/IMRE COMMUNICATIONS:
Claims they sent notice to entrants, telling them their video would be disqualified, and gave them the opportunity to rectify

REALITY:
Another video was disqualified, but never officially notified

[4] HOME DEPOT/IMRE COMMUNICATIONS:
Official Rules state that entries may be submitted no later than 11:59:59 p.m. EST on December 15, 2007 (Rules: "Videos submitted prior to or after the Contest Period will be disqualified")

REALITY:
Winning video submitted after December 15, 2007 (December 21st)

[5] HOME DEPOT/IMRE COMMUNICATIONS:
View Content (number of viewers as listed by You Tube) is 20% of the judging criteria

REALITY:
Winning video re-submitted, creating a view count of ZERO, yet still remained the winner
It has been too long with too little response from Home Depot and Imre Communications. I'm urging all readers to take a moment to contact the people below however you can and ask them to explain any or all of the five "reality checks" above. Then, whether you get a response or not, please send an e-mail with an update on what happened (hdmeltdown@yahoo.com). If they aren't feeling enough heat to answer the questions that so many of us have, you can help "turn up the heat". Do what you feel comfortable with, but do something! Do you want an official answer to these issues, or do you want to quietly close the door?

HOME DEPOT:
[a] Frank Blake, CEO Home Depot, francis_blake@homedepot.com
[b] Paula Drake (Media Contact) paula_drake@homedepot.com 941-488-1289
[c] Manish Shrivastava, president of Home Depot Incentives
Main Line: GA Tel. 770-433-8211 - Toll Free 800-430-3376


IMRE COMMUNICATIONS:
[d] Will Zweigart willz@imrecommunications.com 410-821-8220
[e] Cathy Austin, Partner & Senior Vice President cathya@imrecommunications.com
[f] Dave Imre, APR, President & Partner
Main Line: 410.821.8220, FAX: 410.821.5619 info@imrecommunications.com

Or, get creative...

[g] Entrants, instead of faxing your signed affidavit to Madeline Wong as requested, send her a fax demanding answers from those responsible before you sign away all the free publicity they want from your video. Fax it to 770-384-2824.
[h] Contact your local stations or newspapers and alert them
[i] Express your concern with your local Home Depot managers and, if applicable, how the contest might have affected your relationship with the store

Please be polite but firm with all your correspondence. Now go for it!

(UPDATE: We've added a couple more contacts for you to try. From what we're seeing in the comments, Home Depot is sending out cookie-cutter responses that parrot what they posted in their message boards on YouTube (before they promptly deleted them). They seem to have mastered the art of "copy-and-paste" in their response, and I have yet see any more insight to justify their decisions)

Monday, January 21, 2008

BUSTED! CLOSURE NOTICE AFTER IT WAS CLOSED

If you haven't already, scroll down the extensive list of posts to read all about how Home Depot/IMRE Communications allowed the winning video in their YouTube Gift Card contest to re-edit their video AFTER the contest was over, to avoid being disqualified.

Well, I posted earlier that I had my suspicions about a post on Home Depot's/IMRE Communication's YouTube site. In it, they say the phrase "(Discussion Forums will be closed on 12/26/07, more than one week after the contest ends)". I thought the parsing was a little weird, since why would you go through the trouble of qualifying that it would be "more than one week after the contest ends"? It seems that my suspicions were correct.



In viewing a cached version of the website, up till the evening of December 25th, 2007, there was NO notification that the message boards were going to be closed on the 26th, "more than one week after the contest ends". Let's say that again, because it seems very telling of those operating the contest... They originally posted NO END DATE for entrant feedback. When they felt the heat from the barrage of comments that were confronting their decision to re-edit the winning video, they closed down all the message boards, and THEN told everyone they were going to close them down... as if it had been planned all the long.

UPDATE: It now appears that even mid-day December 26th, they still hadn't posted any closure notice. By 5pm Dec. 26th, the new notice was up. So, what... they give people a couple of minutes between the time the notice is posted to voice any last concerns before they shut it down? All the while, not responding to the massive requests for more information.

The absolute best-case scenario would be that the Home Depot staff members who posted this have painfully horrific English and time-space skills, and that nobody is double-checking the moderator. Because if someone were assigned to post a closure notice, say, on December 26th (after closing the boards), wouldn't they just say "Discussion Forums are now closed, more than one week after the contest has ended"). And the least they could have done was leave them open for people to read but not post, rather than deny ANY access to them.

So there you have it... another "after-the-fact" justification... just like they did with the winning video. They couldn't simply close the message boards down without notice... it seems they felt compelled to build the illusion that everything is going swimmingly. Remember, they also removed their contest rules from their YouTube Site shortly after the controversy began, although a copy is posted below (you'll get a blank page with that link - NOTE: site is managed by IMRE Communications). I guess in "Home Depot-land", if you don't like the rules, change them! No wonder they've been voted one of the most hated companies in 2007.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

HD POCKETING $$$ OFF OF GIFT CARDS

Some may say the Home Depot YouTube $25,000 contest of last December was all about holiday cheer. However, people like Patti Bond have written on this subject. If you don't remember Patti, she's the "journalist" that was hired by Home Depot just EIGHT DAYS after she wrote a glowing article on the contest. Nice, huh? Well, she explains the contest:

"Home Depot also is trying to boost gift card sales with the contest, which comes just ahead of the last-minute holiday rush."
So, they were trying to boost gift cards, right? Probably not a big surprise to most, although there are still those out there who think this was solely a "mom-and-pop" feel-good contest. But, if Home Depot is going to dish out around $30,000 in prizes, plus pay for Imre Communications to get involved, plus any other overhead, they would likely want to get a return on their investment. Well, according to an article in the NY Post, the unredeemed gift card business is a BILLION dollar business for companies. As a matter of fact, in 2005, Home Depot alone had $43,000,000.00 in unused gift cards.

Some states, like Delaware, are pretty aggressive in pursuing the consumer's ability to cash in on their gift card after a length of time, say longer than a year. So, Home Depot set up a "giftco" (a presumably separate gift card unit of Home Depot) in perhaps the friendliest state for cashing in on the cards. This, from the Post (emphasis added):

"Out-of-state giftcos don't make retailers immune to home-state restrictions on fees and expiration dates for gift cards, which have become fewer amid increased media scrutiny and pressure from lawmakers. But the cash from unredeemed cards is key to a giftco's profitability, industry insiders say.

As a result, many retailers in corporated in Delaware - which aggressively pursues breakage - have moved their giftcos to more gift-card friendly confines, says George Delta, a Virginia- based corporate lawyer.

Friendlier states include Ohio, Florida, Washington and Virginia - indeed, the latter is the home of two prominent gift-card subsidiaries: Best Buy and Atlanta-based Home Depot.

So, Home Depot runs a contest to promote their gift cards (which I believe was handled in an absolutely horrendous, scandalous manner). A percentage of those gift cards never get redeemed, and Home Depot cashes in on millions of dollars, right? Does it still sound like a "mom-and-pop" feelgood contest to you? Does this all sound a little shady to you? The Post reports (emphasis added):

To avoid charges that a giftco is merely a "shell company" or accounting tool, J. Brooke Spotswood, a Virginia-based lawyer, advises a retailer to establish its giftco in a separate office with separate employees, preferably located in the state where the giftco is incorporated. Giftcos also should have their own bank accounts and outside directors, he says.

Home Depot Incentives, the home-improvement giant's Virginia-based gift-card unit, was founded in 2001 and has its own employees. But a company spokesman was unable to verify whether those employees work in Virginia.

So, given that Home Depot Incentives (the same people that created the YouTube contest) stands to make, oh, like $43,000,000.00 off of you and I buying their gift cards and handing them off with a "Merry Christmas!", perhaps the Mercury News put it best:

"When you buy a gift card, it's not the retailer who's supposed to get a present. But that's how it works out when consumers fail to redeem all or part of gift cards worth billions of dollars every year."

The best advice I can give, is make sure everyone you know uses their gift card promptly. You should at least get some merchandise out of the deal. As for me, next year I'll be sending my holiday cheer by writing Christmas cards, not buying Home Depot gift cards.


Friday, January 11, 2008

YOUR VERY OWN CONSUMER ADVOCATE

Since the weeks gone by, there has been extremely little offered by Home Depot from what I've seen with regard to answering the questions posed on this blog. Despite those shouting for answers, people are reporting that Home Depot has only sent impersonal form letters to those who question the decisions. I've been asking you to make a contribution by asking those responsible for answers, and I would like to thank everyone for their efforts. Keep it up!

But perhaps you are getting tired of what I would consider "non-answers", and wish someone else would do some of the heavy lifting. There is something you can try. Write to your state's Attorney General (bonus points if you're from Georgia). Tell them your concerns regarding the fairness of this contest. Your state's Attorney General is an advocate to the consumer, so ask them what they think. Tell them your concerns about the fairness of this contest and the conduct of Home Depot and Imre Communications. Ask them to investigate.

Don't know who yours is or how to contact them? I'll help you. Click on this link to take you to a list of all the Attorney Generals in the U.S., and find your state. Don't know what to write? Here's a sample letter. Feel free to modify this to suit your situation and/or complaints. The more people that write, the greater the impact. I think one stamp or five minutes writing an e-mail is worth it to get some answers, don't you?

Dear (Your State’s Attorney General),

I am writing with concern regarding a skills-based online contest conducted by Home Depot last December. The contest was hosted on www.youtube.com, and the winners were to receive awards in the amount of $200 and $25,000. Official Rules were posted on YouTube, and I entered in good faith, following those rules.

Upon completion of the contest on December 15th, 2007, Home Depot, in conjunction with Imre Communications, awarded the grand prize to a video that did not meet the contest rules, as it contained prohibited copyrighted material. Instead of disqualifying the entry, they allowed the winner to re-edit their video, after the contest was over. They accepted this newly edited submission (despite the fact that the rules state that any entry submitted after the contest deadline would be disqualified). To place this in further context, Home Depot and Imre Communications disqualified a different video (the Bork family from New York) for a rules violation, but then seemed to ignore their rules with regard to the winning video.

I do not believe Home Depot and Imre Communications acted in good faith in conducting this contest. Out of concern for the fairness and integrity of their online contest, I would ask that you investigate this situation.

Sincerely,

(Your Name Here)

RESOURCES:

Home Depot
2455 Paces Ferry Road
Atlanta, GA 30339
1-770-433-8211

Imre Communications (Baltimore)
909 Ridgebrook Road
Suite 300
Baltimore, MD 21152
P 410.821.8220
F 410.821.5619

Imre Communications (Washington)
528 F Street Terrace SE
Washington, DC 20003
P 202.547.0500
F 202.547.5900

YouTube Contest Home Page
http://youtube.com/group/thdgiftcards

An online duplicate of the contest rules is available here, since Imre Communications removed them shortly after the contest ended.
http://www.freesamplesite.com/ydf/showthread.php?s=d1456d884dc5e43739b7d9af84ecee9f&p=1525233#post1525233

Video proof of the copyright violations
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5UdPfQEPTI

TAKE ONE? TAKE TWO!

(Be sure to scroll down to read about how Home Depot allowed the winners of their $25,000 YouTube contest to re-edit their video AFTER the contest was over, to avoid being disqualified... what I believe was a real "Meltdown")


IMPORTANT! After reading this post, scroll down and take action ("YOUR VERY OWN CONSUMER ADVOCATE")

video

Part of what this blog alleges is that the winning video was re-submitted after the contest deadline (which I think was completely against the rules), and as such it's vote count (which is 20% of the vote) should have been reset to zero. That would further impair the winner's tally. It seems to me like a no-brainer. However, some disbelievers of this blog have offered their take on how to discredit this claim. They say that it really is only one video, one entry, the "same" video, so I'm completely wrong...the winning video was submitted before the deadline. That kind of logic doesn't make much sense to me. But in any event, behold! Below is a screen capture from December 21st, right after the winners posted their re-edited version. You'll see that to the right of the new video, YouTube itself has suggested a "related" video, a DIFFERENT video on its site that it thinks you might want to check out. Wouldn't you know it, it's the original video!



In other words, it looks as though the Long family had TWO submissions going at the same time. Two different videos with two different vote counts. And, if we look at the contest rules:
"Limit one entry per person."
So, there you go. I'd like to thank the naysayers out there. You helped me discover ANOTHER potential violation for our growing list. Entrants are not allowed more than one entry. I think the conduct of Home Depot and Imre Communications is absolutely atrocious. Now, read the post below and contact your attorney general about this contest!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

IF IT WERE UP TO YOU...

After you finish reading the post below ("EVERYONE NOTIFIED? NOT REALLY..."), let's hear from you. If it were determined that Home Depot/Imre Communications violated the law in their conduct of this contest, what should happen? Let the winner's keep the prize? Award the prize to someone else? A YouTube "re-do"? What?

(UPDATE: Comments appear to be working again. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

EVERYONE NOTIFIED? NOT REALLY...

Be sure to scroll down to read all the posts regarding the Home Depot YouTube $25,000 contest.

So, we know Home Depot and their business partner, Imre Communications, are justifying the re-edit of the winning video (to avoid being disqualified) by saying it was an "opportunity that all submitters have had". How did they go about giving entrants this opportunity? According to Home Depot (on the now-scrubbed YouTube message boards, emphasis added):

"As background, we reviewed each video when it was submitted to ensure it complied with contest rules. When we found a submission that did not comply, we provided feedback to the submitter and gave them the opportunity to rectify ... Please note that if you did not receive an email from us at any point after submitting your video, your video was not disqualified."
Let's ignore for a moment the glaring questions about giving the winners the "opportunity" to submit past the deadline (unlike anyone else), and overlooking the view count judging criteria (which was ZERO upon their resubmission). It would seem cut-and-dry, right? They were notified, like "everyone", that they had some disqualifying issues, so Home Depot was just being fair, right?

But wait... there WAS another video that was disqualified. The Bork family from Buffalo, New York, submitted a video. Their contest entry was disqualified by Home Depot:
"We regret to inform you that the Bork family's video from Buffalo, NY was disqualified"
But according to the family, they were NEVER officially notified that they were disqualified. Were they given the same "opportunity" as everyone else? It would seem not. Granted, the circumstances are a little different, in that a family member worked for Home Depot. But Home Depot is offering this blanket excuse for their actions, and it doesn't seem to hold up.

When it comes down to it, contests are "ruled by the rules". So, Home Depot's contest rules are all we can refer to (they were removed from the Imre-managed website shortly after the contest ended, but are posted below). It is a contract, in essense, with everyone who enters the contest. As Home Depot said (about the Bork video, emphasis added):
"...we are legally obligated to follow the contest rules. It would be unfair to the other 260 entries to do otherwise."
Home Depot may justify this contest in whatever way they choose, but there is a passage in their rules that seems telling (emphasis added):
"Entrants are prohibited from submitting entries that: (i) contain material that is copyrighted, protected by trade secret or otherwise subject to third party proprietary rights, including privacy and publicity rights, unless the entrant is the owner of such rights or has permission from the rightful owner to post the material and to grant Sponsor and YouTube all of the license rights granted herein;"
As one reader put it (emphasis added), "Bottom line the word/phrase 'prohibited' says it all. Yes, Sponsor has the right to remove.,ie..the Bork video.. BUT the entrants are PROHIBITED from submitting entries..meaning before any judging begins. The Sponsors rights begin after the submission when the judging process starts."

If legally accurate, that would mean that it was in no way Home Depot's responsibility to make sure that entries were compliant with the rules. Rather, the entrant's are fully responsible. It would prohibit entrants from posting copyrighted material on YouTube without permission. So, what if an entry that violated these terms were to make it onto YouTube?
"Entrants agree that Sponsor shall have the right to immediately remove any entry and disqualify any entrant who has or is suspected of violating these Official Rules or whose entry infringes or potentially infringes upon the intellectual property rights or other rights of any person or entity."
So, they have a right to disqualify you for even being "suspected" of violating the rules. One other reader asked if this isn't a discretionary statement, giving Home Depot the flexibility to choose whether or not to disqualify the entry. First, go back to the above statement that says "entrant's are prohibited" from submitting copyrighted material. They shouldn't be submitted in the first place. Second, does the Sponsor's right to remove a disqualified entry give them the right to UN-DISQUALIFY an entry? If anyone can find a legal way to explain this all away, please do so.

As always, you are welcome to express concerns, offer tips and get involved at the email posted in the "profile" button to the right.

Monday, January 7, 2008

THE $25,000 QUESTION

(I apologize for such a long post, but I encourage you to read this all the way to the end.)

Within a day after the post about the status of the Home Depot gift cards ("WHAT? ME WORRY?"), reports are in that Home Depot is requesting a signed affidavit before issuing the prizes. In reading through the comments for the aforementioned post, one writer seemed almost offended that the question about gift cards was asked. This response isn't entirely unique here at this blog. What is interesting to me is that most who come here to defend the conduct of this contest arrive with little to substantiate that the allegations made here are incorrect. Rather, they tend to either throw insults or seem irritated that anyone is bothering to follow up on what became a highly-contentious issue. Since the inception of this blog, I have practically begged for any substance that is a clear indicator that it was legal to allow a contestant to change their entry after-the-fact to avoid disqualification. Apparently that is too much to ask for some, since I have received very little in this regard.

But there are those who still feel unsatisfied by the reasoning offered by Home Depot/Imre Communications, and still crave answers. Which leads us to "The $25,000 Question". According to the affidavit there are no "winners" at this point, only "potential winners". To become a real "winner", you are required to affirm a few statements. One of them is this (emphasis added):

"I certify that I did not violate any state or federal laws prohibiting contest impropriety, that I did not receive any special or secret aid or assistance, and that I did not participate in any scheme to rig, fix or predetermine the outcome of the Sweepstakes I won."
Considering that the winning video was allowed to re-edit their video to remove material that would disqualify them, does that indicate that they received "special or secret aid or assistance"? On the surface, it would seem so. Particularly when the contest rules say it is the ENTRANT'S responsibility to avoid copyrighted material. But, let's flash back for a moment to the point in time when Home Depot/Imre Communications announced that they would retain the Long video as the winning video, despite their need to re-edit to avoid disqualification. At the time, they justified their decision as such:
"Because we never identified any issues with the winning video when we reviewed it initially, we have recently given the winner the opportunity that all submitters have had - to make some minor adjustments to eliminate any potential compliance issues."
Is this their attempt to legalize what many consider an unfair decision? If they can claim they did this for other "potential winners", does that nullify the "special or secret aid or assistance" issue? So far, I have heard of no entrant who was given the "privilege" of being notified of some rules infraction and allowed to re-edit, even though that very question had been posed to Home Depot almost immediately after the above announcement. Even if we concede to them allowing them to remove disqualifying material from their winning video, there are some glaring issues that seem without resolve. For instance:
  • What of the issue of not allowing any video submissions after December 15th? Nobody else was given this "special assistance".
  • What of the issue that 20% of the judging criteria is based on the number of views the video received? Upon re-submission, the winning video had a ZERO view count at the end of the contest.
The view count issue seems to paint the picture that the number of views wasn't even taken into consideration (contrary to stated rules), and was purely a marketing ploy by Home Depot/Imre Communications to drive people to the YouTube site. If that is true, all that time you may have spent rounding up people to watch your entry may have been a big waste of time. That raises ethical issues from my point of view. But the bigger issue is, I still find no way out of the "post-December 15th mentality" that Home Depot seems to have with regard to the submission cutoff date. Can you?

Let's not forget that, in addition to the "potential" grand prize winner, there are more than 260 other individuals and families who entered this contest and are now being asked to sign the affidavit, whether $20 or $200 gift card winners. These families also worked hard on their entries, and must now also affirm their entry is on the "up-and-up" before claiming their prize. But before you take that last swipe of the pen and tuck your affidavit neatly into your envelope, remember that when they giveth, they also taketh away:
"I hereby release and discharge Home Depot U.S.A. Inc., its affiliates, subsidiaries, divisions, officers, directors, employees and agencies from any and all liability for any taxes, injuries, damages, repairs or service or causes of action arising out of or in connection with this Sweepstakes or my acceptance and use of the prize awarded."
With your "potential prize" goes any liability Home Depot/Imre has towards you with regard to any of their conduct. And so it goes... As always, feel free to click on the "profile" tab to the right and e-mail me questions or concerns.

RESPONSE TO COMMENTS:

A reader asks in the comments "what about the verbage in the contest rules that states that HD has the right to disqualify a contestant? this does not sound definitive and gives them some room for discretion." Well, certainly they should have the right to disqualify a contestant. But is that right the the same as the right to change the rules or criteria to "UN-DISQUALIFY" a contestant?

Another reader comments: "I'm a little uncomfortable with your attempts to take the $25,000 away from the winners". Don't confuse "following the rules" with "vendetta". The blog is was not formed to take any prize away from any winner. It was created in response to the uproar created by Home Depot/Imre Communications' decisions, not as an attack on the winners. The attempt at this blog has always been to find a way to justify the course of actions on the part of Home Depot/Imre Communications (there are laws to follow). I haven't found any solid explanations as of yet. Wouldn't it be great for Home Depot/Imre to make a public statement that legally discounts every point made here in the blog, and we'd all go "home"? From what I can gather, "mum's the word".

video

COPYRIGHT? WHAT COPYRIGHT?

(You can read through this and then move on to the lower posts, since this is meant more as entertaining commentary than as real analysis of the Home Depot contest itself)

Did you know the "sample entry" that Home Depot posted (to give everyone an idea of what sort of video entry to make), is laden with copyrighted products, and would seem to violate their own contest rules? Take a look at this frame:



It starts off with a subtle focus on a Coca-Cola bottle. "Big deal", right? But there it is...in all its ironic glory. In hindsight it seems telling of the quality-control that went into this contest. All I can say is that maybe they got permission from Coca-Cola to place the product front-and-center, particularly when you consider that Coca-Cola is headquartered in Atlanta (like Home Depot) and the former CEO of Home Depot was once the director of the Coca-Cola Company.

Something else that seems interesting is the fact that Home Depot is continuing to log on to their user account ("THDGiftCards") as recently as yesterday.



What do you suppose they are watching over there? If they are watching "The Proof!", it would be great if they would leave a comment once in a while. Well, enough of this. Now you can scroll down for more serious conversations.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

WHAT? ME WORRY?

I've been hearing reports from more than one source that entrants aren't receiving their gift cards (of any denomination). If you're an entrant, you're welcomed to e-mail with a status on your card's arrival (look under the profile to the right). Has anybody received one? Anybody? All I can gather from Home Depot's/IMRE Communication's YouTube site (a feeble, but seemingly singular source for ANY sort of information from the contest Sponsors) is that "you’ll receive a ... Gift Card from The Home Depot via mail very shortly". And that was a couple of weeks ago. Thanks in advance for letting me know.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS?

If you haven't already, be sure to scroll down and read all the posts about how Home Depot and IMRE Communications allowed a winning video to re-edit their video to conform to contest rules (after the contest was over) in their YouTube Gift Card contest.

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You can count me among those who wish to believe that everything was on the "up-and-up" with the Home Depot contest. Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong on every point I've made. But since this blog began (due mostly to the amazingly underwhelming response by Home Depot staff to the outcries from contestants), I've been less-than-convinced that their actions were allowable under contest law. It's difficult at times to keep track of all the facets involved; the winning video violating contest rules, Home Depot allowing a re-edit after the contest was over, message boards shut down, minimal response from Home Depot, another entrant disqualified, promotional journalists hired by Home Depot, and so on.

A reader has submitted what could be described as the "best hope" for Home Depot's actions. In it, they try to get "into the mind" of Home Depot (or, shall we say, into the mind of a lawyer who wants to protect Home Depot in every way possible). As much as some people like to portray this as some happy-go-lucky "mom-and-pop" contest, in reality there are teams of lawyers who help put these contests together, since there are laws that regulate these things. So, can some or all of their actions be brushed aside through legal fineprint? Let's take a look. I believe, as does the reader who offered these observations, that even if one were to give Home Depot the full benefit of legal fine print, their actions still raise ethical questions. But let's take a look. I'll paraphrase the meat of the message (emphasis added):

[1] JUSTIFYING CHANGING THE WINNING VIDEO, AFTER THE CONTEST WAS OVER:

WHAT THE RULES SAY: "Sponsor reserves the right to cancel, terminate, modify or suspend this Contest in the event that this Contest is not capable of running as planned, including infection by computer virus, bugs, tampering unauthorized intervention, fraud, technical failures, or any other causes beyond the control of Sponsor which corrupt or affect the administration, security, fairness, integrity or proper conduct of this Contest."

MY ANALYSIS: To me, this seems as though this would be meant to protect the forward momentum of the contest, eliminate fraudulant votes, and the like. Not to rework the contest rules after it was over. It would also seem to favor the line that changes be made to ensure GREATER fairness and integrity, not just allow a convenient "do-over" for Home Depot. Am I naive to assume that?
[2] JUSTIFYING DELETING COMMENTS ON YOUTUBE THAT CONFRONTED THEIR DECISION:
RULES: "Sponsor reserves the right to reject any entries or comments that violate the YouTube Terms of Use stated above, and/or contain any message that, in our sole opinion, harasses or threatens any individual; is obscene, illegal or otherwise objectionable."

MY ANALYSIS: This one seems succinct enough to qualify as a "devil in the details" excuse to delete the comments from the YouTube message board that contradicted their opinion. I would concede to this one, and will submit my own acknowledgement that they could probably legally delete whatever messages they wanted to. That said, is this the best way to handle entrant complaints? When multiple people express outrage and demand answers, was it the best move to offer no further response, then delete their messages, then shut down the message board altogether when the going gets tough? From a company who was recently voted one of the "Most Hated" companies in 2007, it doesn't seem like a very wise move, but perhaps this mentality is what contributes to their dubious honor.
[3] JUSTIFYING THE RE-EDIT OF THE WINNING VIDEO:
RULES: "All winners must meet the eligibility requirements set forth in these rules in order to qualify for the prize."

MY ANALYSIS: This seems a stretch, but if we are to suspend ethical boundaries, is this a way to say that they can adjust whatever they want in order to qualify for the prize? I tend to disagree on this one. To me it seems to say "check out all the eligibility requirements (i.e., no copyrighted stuff, etc.) and if the video does not satisfy the rules, it's disqualified. Gray area at best.
[4] SHUFFLING THEM INTO "OFFICIAL" VICTORY:
RULES: "As a condition of winning the prizes, all potential winners must complete, sign and return an affidavit verifying (1) originality of the entry (2) eligibility and a (3) liability and publicity release, where permitted by law, and any other applicable forms required by a taxing authority within ten (10) days of receipt of written prize notification or prizes will be forfeited and an alternate winner selected."

MY ANALYSIS: The reader's point here being that maybe, maybe, they have spun through all the steps necessary to make them a "potential" winner. Now all they need to do is have them sign off, and it's a done deal. Perhaps these are the interpretations going on. But my take on it would be that this is a "cover-your-butt" for Home Depot, in that they want all the winners to sign an affidavit saying that, assuming Home Depot didn't catch it already, you are liable for anything that would in essence disqualify your entry.
So, there you have it. An attempt to justify Home Depot's actions using a broad interpretation of their own contest rules. It was a good exercise in trying to flush out what might be going on here. But I have to say, even after REALLY TRYING to legalize this whole thing, it would seem to give a broader impression of extremely loose ethical boundaries on the part of Home Depot. The best I could do is feel better knowing that they could probably legally delete all the controversial YouTube messages (though I don't condone it). I still leave the discussion table thinking that there are too many statements in the contest rules that say in effect "YOU, the ENTRANT are responsible for not including ANYTHING in your video that might get us, Home Depot, in trouble, and you better be able to sign your name on the dotted line stating that very thing". I find nothing that definitively says that Home Depot is responsible for figuring out if you have complied with the rules. Yet that is exactly the excuse Home Depot given everybody; that they were only giving the Long family the same chance they gave everyone, and that is to make your video "legal".

Perhaps a word of advice to the lawyers at Home Depot/IMRE Communications... next time add in something like this, and blogs like this will never exist:

"Sponsor is responsible for catching violations in entrant's video. If Sponsor fails to identify material in entrant's video that fails to comply with contest rules by December 15, 2007, Sponsor will immediately instruct entrants with regard to what material needs to be changed in order to comply with said rules. Entrant will be given two (or more) days to complete changes. If there is additional material that is NOT identified by Sponsor even after this stage, then entrant alone shall be responsible for all legal complications that arise from use of video."

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A REMINDER FOR HOME DEPOT

It would seem Home Depot needs to dust off their virtual copy of company ethics, or at least read it a couple more times, because after I read through it, there seem to be some glaring contradictions between the document and reality. From what I can tell, they did not run this contest in compliance with the law. Do you have any information to say otherwise? Let's take a look at what Home Depot itself says (emphasis added):

"The Home Depot has a strong commitment to ethics and integrity, and our core values define the means by which we do business. Each day we are challenged to be fair and consistent, to be compliant with the laws that govern our activities, and to notify others when something needs to be corrected."
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Doing the right thing while performing your job may not always seem the easiest choice or the most expedient way, but it is always the only choice and the only way."
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"It is our mission to be a good corporate citizen and to serve each community in which The Home Depot conducts business.
We will obey the laws and respect the customs of each community and will encourage participation and involvement in community affairs"
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It is everyone’s responsibility to comply with all of the laws that govern The Home Depot’s activities, and to adhere to our Corporate Compliance Policies, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and other Company standards at all times."
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Each Director, Officer and Associate should always deal fairly with the Company’s customers, suppliers, competitors and Associates. None of us should take unfair advantage of anyone through manipulation, concealment, abuse of privileged information, misrepresentation of material facts, or any other unfair practice."
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Do not use or copy a trademark, copyrighted material, trade secret or patented invention of another"
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Violations of the law, this Policy or any of our Corporate Compliance Policies may expose Directors, Officers, Associates and the Company to civil and criminal liability."
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Anyone who violates the Company’s policies is subject to discipline up to and including termination. These disciplinary measures apply equally to those who condone improper or illegal conduct by another Associate. Associates may report Policy violations or other concerns to their Manager, the Corporate Compliance Team or anonymously, through the Company’s AwareLine at (800) 286-4909."
...
"The Company will not tolerate any retaliation or threats of retaliation against anyone that reports in good faith a violation or suspected violation of the law, any Company Policy or the Business Code of Conduct and Ethics."

And to put this in perspective, I'll repeat some of what's in the post below, entitled "Food For Thought". In it I examine one perspective on contest law. Remember, according to Home Depot's own rules, any entry that contains copyrighted material should be disqualified, but they allowed it to be re-edited instead:

... Certainly, the rules should include protections for the promotion sponsor, such as limitations on the number of entries permitted and the manner in which entries may be submitted (e.g., precluding bulk-mail entries). The promotion rules should be written carefully, because the sponsor will be legally bound to adhere to them once the promotion begins.
...
Eligibility should also be conditioned on compliance with the Official Rules.
...

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the creativity and low-cost of the Internet as a medium should not be an excuse to avoid legal compliance. If anything, it should up the ante, as the reach of the Internet is incredibly broad, and legal compliance becomes all the more important when one’s promotional campaign may be virally emailed all across cyberspace.

A NEW "REALITY SHOW"

If you haven't done so already, be sure to scroll down to read all the posts regarding Home Depot's $25,000 YouTube Gift Card contest, and how they allowed the winning video to re-edit AFTER the contest was over, just to avoid being disqualified.

While the winning video was cute and catchy... a Home Depot marketer's dream... the question is: How far can a company legally go to keep their favorite a winner? Can they bend the rules? Make special rules? Or are they required, as I presume, to follow their Official Rules to the letter? (NOTE: Home Depot has since deleted their rules from the YouTube site, but you can read them here if you scroll down)

Home Depot disqualified another video (the Bork family) for rules violation. As Home Depot stated, they are "legally obligated to follow the rules", in fairness to the 260+ other entrants. When they then allowed an entrant to re-edit their video to avoid being disqualified, AFTER the contest was over, well... many people had some strong opinions. Here are some things that some of the 260+ other entrants have e-mailed me, after the official winner was announced. It's a tale of how this affected many of the people who worked hard for their chance to win:

"This whole thing upset me...I feel like me and my family wasted our time now...I feel like this contest was fake."

"Wow, that is unbelievable, can they legally let that happen, aren't they violating their own rules??!?!"

"I noticed they have shut down the message board..tells me they want it all to go away."

"I, too am appalled at HD's behavior. I was able to read the main discussion thread this morning before all the discussions were removed completely. Do you know if HD has done anything beyond issuing the lame excuse?"

"I was reading up on all the controversy today and HD's lame response/excuse...then they suddenly took down all the discussion threads! Very, very poor showing by HD."

"This was a big HD blunder !"

"Excuse me. My head just exploded."
I've also received a few comments in support of Home Depot, like these:
"I think it's a great video. I think it's great that companies like Home Depot have these contests and pay 20K. I think it's great that HD saw the great video - and allowed the video makers to make it 100% legal"

"I don't really care about 3 or 4 Home Depot employees missing some copywrited material in a home movie. Sure, maybe the family that won may not have been the most needy, but the movie was cute and fun."
Regarding that last quote, you can be sure there were more than 3 or 4 employees involved in this contest, to comply with regulations intended to ensure a legally run contest... I get the feeling that there were a few people involved that were in way over their head in this contest, then others were forced to bury this as quickly and quietly as possible. It didn't quite work out as they had hoped, I would imagine. Do you have a comment? Let us know.


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