Marketing Through Contests – Are We Conning Our Kids?


Lynn Serafinn tells how a marketing contest to win a cookbook led to an awakening for her 7-year-old grandson, and asks ‘Are we teaching our children to lose?’

Last month, I spent a couple of weeks babysitting my 7-year-old grandson, Percy, while he was off school and his parents went to work (being self-employed, I try to rejig my schedule when I can so I can help out).

One day, Percy and I went grocery shopping to get some items for lunch. On the shopping list was plain yoghurt. We picked up a carton by the brand Yeo Valley, which is one of the brands his parents would normally buy. On the label of this particular carton it said ‘win a cookbook’. Percy got excited about the thought of winning a cookbook. Not that he would use it yet, of course; it’s just that his parents have cookbooks and he thought it would be nice to have one of his own.

We finished our shopping and went back home. After lunch, we opened the yoghurt. Inside the inner lid it said, ‘This is your lucky lid’. Seeing the word ‘lucky’, Percy again got excited, believing we had won the cookbook. I had to explain to him that we hadn’t won yet, and that we had to enter the contest by going onto the Yeo Valley website and entering the code that was on the ‘lucky lid’. I explained to him that I’d have to give them my email address and maybe even my postal address in order to enter the contest. Of course, Percy didn’t understand why this is not necessarily desirable.

Percy was excited for us to go onto the website to see if we had won the cookbook. So, after lunch we went online and entered our ‘lucky’ number on the Yeo Valley website. Of course, we didn’t win…BUT (the website said) we had ‘won’ a 12 discount on the price of the cookbook if we wanted to BUY it for 8…which I did not. You can actually find it new on Amazon for 6.98!

I was mildly irritated (had they offered me a 50p coupon for my next yoghurt purchase, I would have been happy enough), but Percy looked almost tearful with disappointment. He said he really wanted to own his own cookbook. I found this interesting, because it’s not something he’d ever mentioned before, and it seemed that there was something in the ‘promise’ of the contest that had sparked his sudden interest in cookbooks. In The 7 Graces of Marketing, I talk about how marketers use ‘The Deadly Sin of Scarcity’ to create false needs within us; here I was seeing its effects on my own grandson.

A 7-year-old’s response to marketing

Back in 2009, the director of Yeo Valley said their company produces eight million pots of yoghurt every week. I cannot imagine they are producing less than that today. I explained to Percy that there were only 1,000 cookbooks available as prizes. That sounded like a lot of cookbooks to him, of course. But even though he’s very bright with his arithmetic, it was beyond his young comprehension to understand the statistical unlikelihood of winning one of 1,000 cookbooks amongst 32,000,000 customers during the month of August (1 chance in 32,000).

Still trying to figure out a way to win the cookbook, Percy asked me what would happen if his mom entered his ‘lucky’ number on her computer. ‘Would we get another chance to win the book then?’ I told him that the number on the lid was already a losing number, and if he entered again it would still lose.

He said with some irritation, ‘So, why do they call it a ‘LUCKY LID’ if it’s a losing number?’

I really couldn’t answer him.

But then, (can you guess what’s coming next?) he said VERY mournfully, ‘Ohhh…now I really, really want to buy more yoghurt so I can get another lucky lid.’

O.M.G!!! I thought.

What’s interesting is that when we were walking to the grocery store, Percy had asked me all kinds of questions about the 7 Graces of Marketing — the book, the conference, the courses, all of it. I tried to explain to him about ‘ethical marketing’. It was tough. Even the idea of ‘business’ is something he doesn’t understand yet. But now, here we found ourselves with a PERFECT example of how marketing can manipulate our emotions and behaviour–especially when we are vulnerable children.

I tried my best to explain that it was perfectly fine to buy more yoghurt if we ate up all we’d already bought and wanted to eat more, but to buy more just to get another ‘lucky lid’ was definitely not OK. We didn’t need more yoghurt. We had plenty.

I tried to explain to him that this is exactly what the people who made the yoghurt wanted him to feel: they wanted him to buy more yoghurt.

‘But why?’ Percy asked. ‘Why do they want me to buy more yoghurt?’

‘To make more money,’ I replied.

Percy now looked grumpy. ‘So they just want to make lots of money?’ he pouted.

Rather than spend any more time talking about the contest, I found us something else to do and he seemed happier for a while. But obviously the matter hadn’t left his mind because later that day, when his Dad was driving him to his karate class, Percy asked if they could stop at the store and buy Yeo Valley yoghurt. His father was confused as to why he had this sudden urge to have yoghurt…and why that specific brand. Percy didn’t offer an explanation. His father didn’t buy any yoghurt at the store, but the topic came up later that evening at the dinner table. Percy talked about the ‘lucky lid’, and suddenly his Dad knew why he had asked for Yeo Valley yoghurt. His mother said, ‘Oh Percy, nobody wins those things.’ And then, remarkably, all four of us — even 7-year-old Percy — talked about ethical marketing at the dinner table!

The next day, Percy was back to his normal self, cookbook seemingly forgotten. I’m not sure how much he learned from this experience, but I must admit I find his interest in talking about the ethics of marketing extremely encouraging.

Was any damage done?

Admittedly Yeo Valley is a brand I use. And it is true that, while children eat yoghurt, they are not marketing specifically to children through this contest. Thus, they could rightfully argue that children don’t normally want cookbooks and that an adult, who is capable of understanding the odds of winning a contest, would not get so emotionally engaged in the process. And, they could also rightfully argue that the contest is a means of growing their mailing list, as well as a way of promoting (and selling) their cookbook, which is also available for sale in shops. So, from their point of view, it probably seems quite logical and ethical.

But something just doesn’t feel right to me. I feel like there is something intrinsically damaging about such contests, even if they ‘seem’ ethical. I believe such practices have caused us to become unwittingly acclimatised to gambling–and tolerant of LOSING.

For example, every week, millions of adults play the National Lottery. Ironically, while we were standing in the queue to get our groceries, there was a big display of tickets for the National Lottery–Lotto, Thunderball, Lucky Dip, EuroMillions, the lot. Percy asked the girl at the till about them, wondering what they were. She explained that they were chances to win money. Again, the concept was lost on him. And if he couldn’t understand the ‘lucky lid’, surely he wouldn’t be able to understand the Lottery, where the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 13,983,816. In fact, to win the lowest prize of 10, the odds are that you’d have to buy 57 lottery tickets. And, on the Lottery website they encourage people to ‘play your chosen games more effectively…by buying more Lotto tickets.

I could really get worked up about this whole ‘gambling’ issue and talk about how we as a culture have been snookered into the whole idea of insurance–where we pay into a policy for decades, often never gaining any return from it at all.

Could it EVER be considered sane to willingly invest money into something where we almost definitely will never see a return on it? How did we come to accept ANY of this as normal? Is it possible that it all starts with a lucky lid? Are we gradually programming our kids to grow up to become adults who expect to lose?

And even if this isn’t the case, what does it say about our marketing when a child can get so unhappy and disappointed from it? Even if we are not teaching our children to lose, perhaps we are teaching them not to expect much out of life. After all, Percy’s Mom (my 30-year-old-daughter) said, ‘Nobody wins those contests.’

What is the REAL message we are sending our kids through our marketing? How does it impact them as adults? Are we creating a world where miracles are no longer possible, and promises are held with suspicion? Is that really how they MUST be to survive in the world? Is that really how we want our kids to view life?

Well, at least I got a pot of yoghurt for my 1.

Closing thoughts

While many of you might not consider the Yeo Valley contest per se to be ‘unethical’, in the bigger picture of things I believe such marketing and business practices are programming us from a very early age. I believe they are part of the ‘Old Paradigm’ and are teaching our children to:

  1. Expect failure and loss
  2. Feel outnumbered and manipulated by ‘the odds’
  3. Mistrust ‘the system’, i.e. business, marketing and (sometimes) life in general

Of course, that’s just my opinion. I’d love to know what stories you parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or older siblings have to share about the children in your life:

  • How aware are they about marketing?
  • How can we, as ethical marketers (and family members), best help them?
  • How can we educate them?
  • How can we empower them to become a switched-on consumer group who can’t be deceived or pushed around by unethical marketing?
  • And finally, how can we educate them while ensuring they retain the wonder, trust and magic of childhood throughout their lives?


Lynn Serafinn
3rd September 2013

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Lynn Serafinn author of The 7 Graces of Marketing

LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.

Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors. Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.

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2 Responses to Marketing Through Contests – Are We Conning Our Kids?

  1. # No we Don’t. It’s ‘Them’ who try to #con #children through ‘unaware’ us…

    • Hi Gonzalo, and thanks for stopping by. Well, when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘we as a society’, not any specific group of people. If ‘we’ as a society are tolerating the ‘them’ you are talking about, we are complicit in their unethical behaviour in some way. So, how can we best empower and inform our children about marketing, and still retain the magic in them? How can we encourage ALL businesses to be more mindful of the ‘bigger picture’ of their impact. What do you think?

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