In praise of algorithms and magic moments

I tend to think most mystifying online experiences are the result of an algorithm – or rather an algorithm gone rogue. The people Facebook seems to think you know? The ads for Stannah stairlifts you keep getting served up? The chatbot that stops being helpful and starts insulting you? We’ve all been there.

However, algorithms are really useful if you’re running a prize promotion. As you no doubt know, the CAP Code stipulates that winner selection must be fair and random, and if you use a verifiably random algorithm then it’s easy to prove that your winners have been selected fairly.

Indeed, I love an algorithm and they really come into their own if you’re running a magic moments promotion with multiple winners, perhaps hundreds or even thousands a day. In fact, it’s hard if not impossible to run this type of promotion without relying on an algorithm. I mean, the Prizeology team would never sleep.

I’ve recently noticed, though, that there seem to be far fewer magic moments promotions around and I suspect this may be down to a ruling the ASA made last July. This related to an instant win prize draw McCain’s promoted across all its retail products and I think it’s fair to say that in some quarters the ruling was quite controversial.

The promotion was a branded one, in conjunction with Emmerdale, and the concept was a ‘village raffle’, which was nice. The prize pool was pretty good, too, and included ten Mini Coopers and 10,000 chances to adopt a piglet (awww!). However, a complaint was made, the ASA investigated and it ruled against McCain’s, but it didn’t rule against instant win or magic moments promotions.

What it said was that the way the promotion had been presented exaggerated the chances of winning a prize. Statistically these were low, so the ASA concluded that the promotion was likely to cause unnecessary disappointment and had therefore not been conducted fairly.

This is key, because the cornerstone of the CAP Code is that promoters mustn’t over-promise and consumers mustn’t be unnecessarily disappointed. So it comes down to compliance. Yes, of course compliance is about terms and conditions, but true compliance is about the whole promotion, including the way it’s structured – the underlying mechanics – and the way it’s presented to potential entrants.

At Prizeology we run a lot of magic moments promotions based on algorithms and I have to say they work really well for our clients. We employ different strategies – open magic moments, closed magic moments, a guaranteed prize pool and so on – and we manage the risk for our clients. In essence, our approach to best practice is holistic and covers every aspect of the promotion.

The ASA didn’t find fault with the McCain’s algorithm, which had been independently verified. It wasn’t critical of the fairness of the draw mechanic either. It also acknowledged that the packaging stated winners would be selected via an algorithm and not all available prizes would be won, plus there was a basic explanation of how the algorithm worked on the promotion’s microsite.

Ensuring effective prize promotions compliance will always require experienced and knowledgeable humans who can compute all the angles, but I say let’s continue to embrace algorithms and the magic moments they can conjure up, because without them, well, we’d be up all night.

Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist.

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