The Marketing Contest: Fame or Flop?

The Marketing Contest: Fame or Flop? - Melinda Massie blog

A while back I posted about how to decide if you should take a free gig. After all, it seems many people have no problems asking artists to work for free.

But what if an artist is tricked into it?

Once upon a time, many moons ago when I was working on my advertising degree, one of my advertising classes required that we read the book, “Lies We Live By: Defeating Doubletalk and Deception in Advertising, Politics, and the Media” by Carl Hausman. This book outlines the many ways that we can be lied to through pictures, words, numbers, and more.

While the cynical might think we were to read this to learn how to lie to people, it was quite the opposite. (I know. I, being, realistic...specifically asked. And my professor, God love him, always kindly answered my myriad of questions.) We were required to read it so that we would recognize when tricks were being used as well as not use them ourselves.

After all, you have to know the system to avoid the system.

Which leads us to a common marketing tool that can be too easily manipulated to into a trick:

The marketing contest.

Each contest has its own unique goal of course.

Often, especially with social media, the contest is all about expanding reach and gaining more likes/followers. Things like winning product, gift cards, etc. in exchange for liking pages and posts, and tagging friends.

If you have a small business, you’ll quickly learn that there are TOOOOOONS of pseudo-business awards out there. I say “pseudo” because the vast majority of these awards are pure-D, grade-A fluff.


Not that there’s anything wrong with fluff! I’ve won a number of these rando contests over the years. Even some I didn’t even know existed! Seriously. I think I won “Best Home Stager in Fort Worth” from some rando company about 4 or 5 years in a row...home staging wasn’t even a main service I offered. I was included in a couple of home stager listings and that’s how this rando company got my info.

I digress…


Typically, these contests are a kind of mutual adoration and benefit society. Most “best of” awards fall into this category.

The company/magazine/organization naming the awards gets lots of word-of-mouth from the people/businesses/organizations given the awards. The winners of the awards get to share that they won.

Language in these announcements typically play well in social media algorithms, so everyone sees a boost to their social media.

Additionally, all of the award adoration helps strengthen the bond between the organization and the audience, as these awards tend to add another layer of legitimacy to the business/organization. (Even if it’s a totally fake award.)

It’s an absolute win-win.

Then, there’s the kinds of contests that are less of a win-win. The ones asking for art from artists without rewarding them a value equal to their worth.

These are the worst because:

  1. They have the audacity to ask for free work while making you think that you won the privilege to give them your hard-earned talents for nothing!

  2. Their trickery reinforces negative stereotypes in marketing.

  3. This reinforces the idea that artists don’t need to be paid.

I see this FAR too often.

Most recently, the offenders I’ve seen have been aimed at photographers.

The contest looks something like this: “Take the best picture of X. The winners will be published in Y.” Sometimes there may be a little extra thrown in, but it’s typically only contact info and maybe a blurb.

The most egregious of these that I’ve seen recently was a big, glossy mag that was offering nothing other than a blurb and the “privilege” of being published in their magazine.

There was also a coffee shop that straight up said the photos were for their next marketing campaign. know how businesses get photos for their marketing? Hire a photographer and do a specific shoot. Buy stock photos or find free stock photos. You can even barter.

I’d have respected them far more if they’d just offered up for barter. I know TONS of photogs that would trade coffee for work.

The problem is the lack of honesty. They’re dunking the ask for free work in a bucket of contest glitter to make it “special” when really it’s rudeAF.

If you’ll remember back to my list of how to decide to work for free:

  • if someone else is making money, you need to be too. (It’s not like the magazine is giving away free issues.)

  • If you barter, make sure it’s for something you’d have spent money on, otherwise you’re still losing money. Coffee could be a great barter for some, unless you hate coffee in which case it’s useless.

I encourage you to run contests, as well as enter contests.

However, if a contest is asking you to give away your talents for free, I also encourage you to give it a second (and third) look before entering.

Is the award equal to or greater than what you would charge? Would publication get you a step closer to your goal? If so, fabulous! Go for it and I hope you win!

If not, perhaps don’t give your talents away for free just because some company made creating free marketing content for them sound special. It’s not.

But you are. So make sure that your talents are properly compensated!