FCC Fines WMJX Boston For Contest
Every so often, a radio station runs a contest, and loses. We see an example of this in the FCC’s recently-issued forfeiture order against WMJX, Boston. One of the FCC’s basic contest rule requirements is that both the prize, and the conditions surrounding the prize, must be accurately described.
WMJX, in over 300 contest promotions, announced the grand prize as “[y]our choice of a Mercedes Benz Z300W, an Audi TT 2.0 front wheel drive roadster, or a Toyota Prius hybrid, from Prime Motor Group with no fine print gimmicks.”
It certainly sounds to me like the grand prize is the award of a Mercedes, an Audi, or a Prius, correct? Probably to you also. Well, with the exception of contest rules published only on the Web, WMJX neglected to mention to contestants that the prize was a two-year vehicle lease, and the winner had to meet certain credit requirements in order to be able to enjoy the lease. Ouch!
While the FCC’s contest rule requirements might appear to be strict, for the most part the reasonable person standard applies. That is, if a radio station manager or air personality puts himself or herself into the shoes of a listener contestant and asks whether he or she would feel cheated or miffed upon learning the true nature of the prize or the conditions surrounding the awarding of the prize, the manager or air personality should recognize when something is amiss.
There are numerous examples in the FCC’s contest rule violations files of prizes being inaccurately described, or coming with undisclosed conditions. FCC fines have been imposed for failing to fully and accurately disclose that a prize was one million Turkish lira or ten thousand Italian lira, not $1,000,000 or $10,000 U.S. dollars. An FCC fine was levied for giving away tickets to a “movie premiere” without actually assuring that the winner would be admitted to the theatre for the first showing, which sort of negates the meaning of the word “premiere.”
There are several distinct ways in which the FCC contest rules may be violated by failing to accurately describe the prize and the conditions surrounding the prize.
First, there is the air personality on a lark or doing a shtick with a nominal prize such as entertainment tickets, and recognizing the prize might not garner the enthusiasm desired. The radio personality hypes the prize to make it appear to be something it is not.
The second is the prize that comes with complicated conditions that are either unexpected or unwelcome for the contestant. The WMJX contest appears to fall into this category. It just sounds so much better to say “win a car” over the air than to promote winning a two-year automobile lease provided the winner passes a credit check. In a similar vein, one of the most complaint-producing contest prizes is the “vacation” or “cruise” contest where the contest winner must pay his or her own way get to the port from which the cruise sails, the winner must travel only on certain days, or the contest winner is responsible for significant expenses for required incidental purchases. With vacation prizes in particular, be absolutely certain that your listeners know exactly what is being offered and under what conditions.
A third way is the radio station or air personality that is consciously trying to be cute – offering the “keys” to a car and not the car itself, or a candy bar with the same name as a more significant prize and neglecting to mention the prize is the candy bar. This, of course, borders on fraud. After a spate of radio stations being caught doing this, this type of violation now appears to be less frequent.
Here, we are looking at only the on-air description of the prize and the conditions surrounding the award of the prize. Keep in mind that there are a variety of other ways that an FCC contest rule violation may also occur, including a failure to periodically broadcast a compete set of contest rules, a failure to award the prize advertised, or a “fixing” of the contest so that a desired contestant or category of contestant wins or does not win (a major “vacation” prize, for instance, not being awarded to an LGBT couple, or to an unmarried couple, at the insistence of the advertiser sponsor).
Finally, it is worth noting that the FCC’s contest rule enforcement process is entirely complaint-driven. Happy winners do not complain. Unhappy contestants or listeners do.
Think through the prize being awarded and how it is being described on the air, and not just how it is described in the several paragraphs of fine print in your contest rules. It is a radio station’s air product that sells after all, and not what may be posted on a website or even what may be revealed in periodic broadcasts of your contest rules. Answering an FCC inquiry to a listener complaint of a contest rule violation will cost time and money even if ultimately no FCC violation is found.
If you are selling your listeners on the grand prize of a choice of one of three new cars, your listeners understand that to mean that if they win, they own a new car, right? The FCC thought so in upholding its forfeiture decision against WMJX, calling the violation “fundamental and serious”.
John F. Garziglia is a Communications Law Attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Washington, DC and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a question for our "Ask The Attorney" feature? Send to email@example.com.
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