Contest Ethics and the Cheating Mindset
A typical promotional contest aimed at young girls exploded into a full-scale ethics mess that vividly illustrates how thinking like a lawyer can undermine ethical values and create the perfect state of mind for a cheat.
Here is the published description of the “Club Libby Lu Hannah Montana Rock Your Holidays Essay Contest”: “We want to hear how you’re going to ROCK someone else’s holiday. Maybe it’s Mom, your best friend, or maybe it’s someone you don’t even know! It’s easy: just write (no more than 5 sentences) and send it to us. Maybe you are donating a coat (sorry sis) or maybe you are making breakfast in bed for your Mom (maybe next year Dad!); whatever it is tell us all about it.”
Club Libby Lu is a Chicago-based store that sells clothes, accessories and games intended for young girls. The Grand Prize for the winner of the “Rock Your Holidays Essay Contest” is a “Hannah Montana makeover,” and airfare for four to Albany, N.Y. to see the sold-out Jan. 9 Hannah Montana concert. “Hannah Montana” is really Disney child star and current Tweens Queen Miley Cyrus, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up your subscription of “Tiger Beat.”
The lucky winner of the contest was a six-year old Texas girl who submitted this heart-wrenching essay:
“My daddy died this year in Iraq. I am going to give my mommy the Angel pendant that daddy put on mommy when she was having me. I had it in my jewelry box since that day. I love my mommy.”
Then the company discovered that the girl’s father didn’t die in Iraq. He’s just fine, living in Texas. The company says that the winning essay is a fraud. But the girl’s beloved mommy, Priscilla Ceballos, thinks like a lawyer: she insists that she read the fine print, and nothing in the contest rules required the essay to be true. “We did the essay and that’s what we did to win,” she unapologetically informed Dallas TV station KDFW. “We never said this was a true story.” The essay was fiction and effective fiction at that; the contest asked for an essay, not a news item. Unmoved, Club Libby Lu retracted the prize.
Stay tuned: the real lawyers may be on their way. For legally, Ceballos is on firm ground. The contest rules mentioned nothing about truth or accuracy; such contests seldom do. And she is correct in asserting that factual accuracy is only loosely observed in commercial essay contests.
What standard of truth should be applied to a contest essay such as this? “How are you going to ROCK someone’s holiday?” Does Club Libby Lu expect that every planned gift-giving described in a little girl’s essay will actually occur? Would the company investigate to determine that the winning essay’s gift actually was given to the designated recipient? Clearly not, and clearly, the company doesn’t care. The contest sought an interesting essay, not an enforceable contract. Nor is the purpose of the essay to convey accurate information to the world. The purpose, as the Machiavellian Ms. Ceballos correctly stated, was to write a compelling essay that wins.
Surely it cannot be unethical to determine the content of your contest essay according to what is likely to please the judges. Let’s say that the Marvel Comics Company announces it will award a trip to Hollywood to the kid who writes the best essay entitled, “The Comic Book Hero That I Would Most Like to Be.” Any fool knows that essays mentioning characters featured by a rival company will be rejected: would it be unethical, then, for a realistic entrant to write that he would most like to be Wolverine when he really, in his heart of hearts, aspires to be Batman, a DC Comics icon? I don’t think so. Would it be unethical for a teen to submit a clever essay in this contest when, in fact, he would not truly like to be any comic book hero, given that, you know, they aren’t really alive and wear ridiculous outfits? (“Okay, Johnny, but before we can give you your prize, we’re going to hook you up to this polygraph machine and ask you, “Would you really like to be Wolverine?”) Again, I don’t think that is a reasonable expectation.
Setting the standards for honesty in such a contest is, its seems, more difficult than we assume. If Club Libby Lu is truly concerned about truthfulness, why does it wink at the fact that parents obviously co-author the essays that are supposed to be the creations of 6 to 18-year-old girls? Mrs. Ceballos didn’t hesitate to state that “we” wrote the essay, and nobody regarded that as an admission of misrepresentation justifying forfeiture. Why? Because this wasn’t a homework assignment. Because family members have been collaborating on contest quizzes, themes, slogans and essays for over a hundred years, and nobody, including the losing contestants and the contest sponsors, ever thought of this as cheating. Because Club Libby Lu would have been ridiculed and excoriated if it tried to take a six-year-old’s prize away for letting her mother helped with the contest essay. The ethics of such contests have been cemented by repetition, common sense, priorities and tradition over many decades, and there is unanimity that unless the contest specifically states otherwise, collaborative efforts, credited or not, are permitted.
Still, there are elements of misrepresentation in this practice. Look again at the winning essay: “My daddy died this year in Iraq. I am going to give my mommy the Angel pendant that daddy put on mommy when she was having me. I had it in my jewelry box since that day. I love my mommy.” It is obviously written to appear to be the work of a six-year-old. Club Libby Lu may not have chosen an essay that read, “My father perished tragically in Iraq earlier this annum. I plan to give my mother the pendant that my father delicately pinned on her as she was in labor during my birth. I have kept the cherished memento in my keep-sake box ever since, but my mother needs it more than I do, now.” The judges were probably aware of the fact that an adult hid her creative contributions behind the childish writing, and they didn’t feel it was important enough to warrant disqualification. Club Libby Lu, therefore, implicitly approves of some level of intentional misrepresentation. Similarly, it would presumably not insist that the submitted plan to “ROCK someone’s holiday” be carried out within some reasonable period of time, or even be feasible. In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” George Bailey wanted to give Mary the moon, a romantic but absurd notion. His essay to that effect still might have won the Club Libby Lu contest.
Ms. Ceballos might ask, then, why her daughter’s essay is an affront to the judges’ conscience. She would ask, because her lawyer would know that this is a difficult distinction to make legally, but ethically its an easy question, isn’t it? Her essay was totally fraudulent, unlike what George Bailey might have written, and unlike what most of the contestants probably did write. George’s intended recipient was real, and his sentiment was sincere; the intended gift existed. The Ceballos essay, in contrast, was a cynical attempt to win by appealing to sentimental feelings about American soldiers in Iraq, using their heroism and tragedies to move the judges and persuade them to honor the fallen by awarding a prize to an essay about one casualty of the war. A warm, touching essay supposedly authored by a newly fatherless first grader who loved her mother was really a coldly calculated formula entry designed by that mother to acquire plane tickets and concert tickets through deception. Whatever margin the contest allowed in distance from the truth, this essay exceeded it. Any ethical person would instantly agree.
And any lawyer, looking at it from the point of view of the law, would argue that the essay was within the contest guidelines, which it was. Indeed, if Mrs. Ceballos had consulted a lawyer about how to win the contest without violating the rules, she almost certainly would have been informed that her daughter’s essay stayed just barely within the lines. (The lawyer also would have been obligated to warn her that if the deception became known, it could be embarrassing and lead to controversy and litigation.) The Scoreboard hopes that Ms. Ceballos will resist the urge to call in attorneys now, but if she does, Club Libby Lu better be ready to settle. Its case for retracting the prize is based on ethics, not law.
Meanwhile, one more child in America is being taught that rules exist to circumvent, that lying is only a problem if you get caught, and that the key to success is to find out a system’s loopholes and weaknesses, and exploit them. Mrs. Ceballos’s daughter is well on her way to following in the illustrious footsteps of Marion Jones, Ken Lay, Tom DeLay, and all anonymous American students, employees and public servants for whom deception and cheating is a way of life.
Or she might become a lawyer.