How did a radio presenter’s ignorance of the mobile short code keywords used by Century Northwest station lead to 230 people being excluded from a competition? Anna Montes investigates what went wrong and how Ofcom viewed the station’s reactions.
Topic: Promotion marketing
Who: Century West radio
When: 27 October 2008
Law stated as at: 21 November 2008
In July 2008, Century Northwest (a commercial radio station in the north west of England) gave its listeners the opportunity to win tickets to a local event by entering into a competition.
A brief excerpt from a song was played to listeners but the presenter had removed one word from the lyrics and listeners had to guess the missing word. To enter the competition, listeners had to send the station the missing word by way of a premium-rate SMS message. Listeners were instructed to send their entries to the particular SMS short code often used by the station.
"Love" not the optimal choice
All easy enough but problems arose when the radio presenter decided to remove the word "love" from the lyrics of one of the tracks to be played to listeners as part of the competition. "Love" was the wrong word for the presenter to choose that day as this was the word used by the station on all station short codes for its online dating service.
This meant that 230 entries were wrongly excluded as they were confused with requests relating to the station's dating services. The mistake arose harmlessly enough as the radio presenter choosing the track for the day's competition had simply not been aware that "love" was an SMS keyword used by the station for other purposes.
Ofcom approached for help
When Century Northwest realised what had happened, its parent group, GMG Radio, contacted Ofcom to explain the situation and seek guidance as to what steps it should take to rectify the situation.
As a result, the station notified all entrants concerned by text and by telephone within hours of the competition closing, to advise them of the error and to request that they supplied their personal details so that refund arrangements could be made.
Of all the entrants contacted only 26 responded – 13 requested refunds, two asked for the charge to be donated to the station's nominated charity and the others contacted the station but did not require refunds to be made. Century Northwest also broadcast an apology during the following day's show to explain the error. GMG Radio also put measures in place internally to seek to avoid such an error occurring again and so that all competitions in future would be checked by the digital team of GMG Radio and through a test run of the competition mechanic prior to its broadcast.
Why this matters:
Competitions featuring the use of text voting and premium rate SMS entry routes have not received good press at all over the last year so it is no surprise that GMG Radio wanted to act quickly to limit any damage. This case highlights that everyone involved with the creation of a competition needs to be aware of any factors affecting the competition mechanic and where mobile short codes are to be used for multiple purposes, it needs to be clear how they can be used to avoid any cross-over between different services.
This case also demonstrates how broadcasters should behave where a competition has not gone according to plan and entrants have been wrongly excluded from the competition. When considering this case Ofcom noted how GMG Radio had taken swift actions in an attempt to correct the errors that had taken place, including putting measures in place promptly to provide appropriate refunds and publicise the actions being taken. GMG Radio's immediate notification of the matter to Ofcom was also acknowledged. Due to GMG Radio's approach and their decision to be transparent and work hand-in-hand with Ofcom to rectify the problem, Ofcom was inclined to agree with GMG Radio's assertions that the error was inadvertent and a regretted mistake. Ofcom therefore decided that no further action was necessary.
When publicising its decision in relation to this matter, Ofcom took the opportunity to remind all licensees that care must be taken when listeners or viewers are invited to take part in competitions. A code breach that has arisen due to human error is still a code breach nonetheless, however inadvertent. Licensees were reminded to ensure that they comply with all applicable codes and the guidance notes available which address the operation of competitions.