To the customers in line at McDonald’s, the Monopoly contest looks pretty simple: buy a hamburger, and you might win a prize. Behind the colourful advertisements and snappy slogans, however, lies a thicket of fine print.
The simplest corporate giveaway is subject to an immense web of federal and provincial laws. According to the Criminal Code, for instance, no business can force a person to buy something to enter a contest. That would amount to an illegal lottery. To lawfully operate its Monopoly promotion, McDonald’s lets people request a free entry through the mail.
The Competition Act also includes a battery of laws that govern the world of promotional contests. A company is allowed to allocate a fixed number of prizes to certain regions of the country — say, two to Ontario and three to Quebec — but this has to be crystal clear in the rules. Some contests, like a photo competition, have a judging component. In those cases, the rules must disclose the criteria that the company will use to evaluate submissions.
Before launching any contest, most businesses hire a lawyer who can write the official rules. But Daniel Cole, who leads the advertising practice group at Gowling WLG, noticed a flaw in this arrangement. “If you’re only giving away $250 in swag,” he says, “it doesn’t make much sense to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to write the legal rules.”
Five years ago, Cole came up with a possible solution. He imagined a software program that clients could use to quickly check whether a new contest was compliant with the law.
Cole took the idea to Neota Logic, a technology company that helps lawyers design new software to better serve clients. Eventually, he created an online application that could guide users through a series of questions about an upcoming contest: Who is eligible? In what jurisdiction will the contest take place? What is the prize? The program could then spit out a set of rules, along with any red flags that needed further review.
At this stage, it was only a prototype, so he couldn’t start sending it to clients. Then, in 2019, Ginevra Saylor, a lawyer with decades of experience in legal technology and knowledge management, joined Gowling as the director of innovation and knowledge programs. Once she saw what Cole had built, she understood the application’s potential. As she recalls, “We looked at this and said, ‘This is fantastic. We’ve got to get this out now.’”
To take the project to the finish line, Cole and Saylor joined forces with René Bissonnette, another partner in the advertising group, and Shannon Uhera, an associate. Working together, the team was able to refine the technology.
The final product, called Contest Creator, is now in use among the firm’s clients. One early adopter was RBC, which collaborated with Cole’s team to develop a customized version of the application. The bank now uses the program to run about 200 contests a year. “It’s really important for us to leverage new technology,” says Diana Drappel, senior legal counsel at RBC. Approving the rules for a new contest used to take up to four weeks. “Now, it can be same day.”
Cole is proud of what he’s accomplished. “One of my former senior partners used to say, ‘Good, fast and cheap is a three-legged stool. You can only ever have two,’” he says. “But I think we’ve found a way to have all three.”