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With tweet-marketing contests, everyone loses Add to ...

What an irritating thing is the social media contest! There I was, minding my own business, when up popped a message. It had been forwarded by a friend. It invited me to join a contest.

This particular forward originated with Air France and rolled in over Twitter. Forward on this message, it promised: "And you can win two tickets from Montreal to Paris on Oct. 7 on the A380."

Two free tickets! Now, this friend is a lovely friend. Paris is a lovely city. (The A380 is an ugly airplane, but that's neither here nor there.) But this proposition came with the usual catch: By forwarding the message and entering the contest, I'd be causing an Air France promotion to pop up on an awful lot of people's screens.

I'd become not just a contestant, but a contestant, self-promoter and salesman wrapped up in one. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like I was being offered a chance to join the "Demean yourself for Air France" competition. And I was sorely tempted.

Contests like this are popping up more and more often. They must seem like a great idea to marketers. On paper, they're win-win propositions, enticing people to bag prizes while spreading the word about a product. In practice, however, they're usually zero-sum games that ask users to promote themselves by badgering their peers. It's unpleasant for bystanders. It's unsavoury for contestants. And at the end of the day, they can actually damage the properties they're trying to promote. It's time we asked if these are contests that nobody really wins?

Social media contests exist chiefly to harness word-of-mouth advertising. The theory goes that seeing a billboard for Cheez Whiz won't be nearly as effective as hearing a testimonial from your best friend about its yellowish restorative powers.

So, for years, companies have been scheming to inspire online buddies to recommend products to each other. As it turns out, though, netizens have rebelled at overt attempts to co-opt them into salesmanship.

Enter the social media contest, which juices the process with a jolt of self-interest. The contests come in several flavours, but what unites them is the principle that contestants can win prizes for spreading the word, and - in some cases - soliciting votes from others.

The retweet contest is one format: Twitter users are told that they'll automatically be entered into a draw if they forward, or retweet, a promotional message - say, get a free flight to Paris on one of those ungainly A380s. A variation on this theme is forward-for-charity messages, in which a benefactor promises to give away five cents for every retweet.

Another, more involved, variety is the vote-for-my-handiwork contest, in which people are encouraged to make self-promotional videos or websites, typically explaining why they'd be best to receive a plush gig or prize - and then try to drum up support for their video in an online poll.

Virgin America is running one right now to find a "Toronto Provocateur," a suitably obnoxious title for a promotional figure for their new destination, who will get a whack of free flights.

Last year, Nissan ran a car giveaway contest in which competitors had to use multimedia to demonstrate how they personify the car's hip, edgy brand - then promote themselves on social networks in search of votes. Some did this with such persistence that I still can't see one of those cars without feeling a bit queasy.

But you might best remember the "Best Job in the World" contest held in 2009, which solicited self-promotional videos from contestants itching to become the official promoter of a paradisiacal-looking rock off the coast of Australia, before holding a vote. Canadians with impressively well-produced entries made it to the finals.

(Alas, the highly-publicized job was not all it was cracked up to be. After the British winner was put on a plane, the general public heard little of him until he was almost killed by one of the venomous jellyfish that, it turned out, encircle the island.)

These campaigns are often launched with so many good intentions, you can almost see the words on the boardroom whiteboard: community, creative thinking, youth, engagement, openness! It looks fantastic in theory. But what you wind up with at the end of the day is a bunch of self-promoters spamming their friends.

It's seldom good for the contestants: A strong personality is one of the most valuable things to have online. But contestants have to bend their personalities to fit the sponsor's agenda, tweeting things they usually wouldn't, or being asked to act "hip" and "edgy" in that porridge-y corporate way that's never either.

What's worse, contestants aren't even becoming paid shills: They're contorting themselves to fit a brand in the mere hope of payment. To increase their patrons' reputations, contestants usually take a hit on their own.

And I'm not convinced it's much better for the brands in question. If a heartfelt product recommendation from a satisfied customer is the ultimate referral, then the gyrations of someone who really wants a free car, or iPad, or whatever are the ultimate hollow gesture.

As for the rest of us, these contests are one more thing that cuts into the usefulness of the Internet. I do envy the guy who's going to Paris - but in the process, everybody else lost.

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