Caltech student Becky Hartsfield shows off the prizes she won.
Caltech is known for producing world-class scientists and engineers. But a few of its students have also demonstrated a flair for the law, as a highly controversial 1975 prank that turned on the legalistic reading of a sweepstakes entry form proved.
The sweepstakes in question was held by McDonald's. It ran from March 3rd to March 23rd, 1975, at 187 participating McDonald's restaurants in Southern California. The prizes included a year of groceries, a Datsun Z, McDonald's gift certificates, and cash. But one part of the contest rules caught the attention of three Caltech students who lived in Page House Steve Klein, Dave Novikoff, and Barry Megdal. The part they noticed was the phrase "Enter as often as you wish."
What if, the Caltech students wondered, a person entered the sweepstakes one million times? Surely McDonald's would have to allow this. After all, it was McDonald's that wrote the rule specifying contestants could enter as often as they wished. The only apparent restriction was that all contestants had to fill out an official entry form or a facsimile of an entry form.
Armed with this idea that they were adhering to the legal letter of the rules the three students set out to inundate the contest with Caltech entries. They created a program on Caltech's IBM mainframe computer (this was in the days before personal computers) that churned out 1.2 million entry coupons printed with the names of Page House residents who had agreed to participate in the scheme twenty-six people altogether. Then they cut the coupons into the requisite 3 x 5 inches at a print shop. Finally, on the last day of the contest, the Page House residents stuffed all 1.2 million entries into the boxes at 98 different McDonald's locations.
The press, when it learned what had happened, criticized the pranksters. Instead of seeing a group of intellectual rebels heroically subverting the rigid rules of a corporation, journalists saw a group of over-educated upstarts cheating at a game. This negative perception only deepened when one of the students involved in the plot commented that any money won would be spent on "Parties. Lots of Parties."
McDonald's received hundreds of phone calls and letters from angry customers. In response, it held a press conference on April 14 to explain what it planned to do. At this event a McDonald's representative, Ron Lopaty, commented that, "The original intent of the sweepstakes contest was to provide all McDonald's customers with over 1,850 chances to win prizes best suited to lessen effects of the current economic slump." He then denounced the Caltech stunt, calling it "in complete contradiction of the American standards of fairplay and sportsmanship."
McDonald's revealed that it would honor the Caltech entries, in order to avoid legal action. But it would also hold duplicate drawings in which it would exclude the Caltech entries, even though it estimated this might double the cost of the sweepstakes.
The Caltech students issued a press release of their own in response to McDonald's statements, in which they said, "We feel that by accepting the challenge to 'enter as often as you wish,' we have acted in accordance with the best ideals of American sportsmanship." The students also promised that any prizes they won would not be used for personal profit. Instead, they would donate the bulk of their prize money to a charity and use the remainder to make "living improvements" to their dorm.
Further controversy ensued when a group of San Fernando residents submitted a petition to the State Attorney General's office protesting "The use of equipment at a state or federally funded college, university or institution for the pursuit of personal interest, not to mention the cheating of American consumers." However, a Caltech spokesman noted that Caltech is a private institution, and that the computer center was not state or federally funded.
Only Burger King, McDonald's rival, seemed to appreciate the humor of the situation. In honor of the pranksters, they offered free french fries to anyone who brought in a computer card to a Burger King restaurant (many computers still used cards in the '70s).
On May 20, McDonald's announced the results of the sweepstakes. 3.4 million entries had been submitted, making it one of the most popular sweepstakes ever conducted in California up until that time. Over a third of the entries were from Caltech students.
McDonald's awarded $50,000 worth of prizes. Caltech students won twenty percent of this total, or $10,000 in prizes. The biggest winner among the Caltech students was Becky Hartsfield, an 18-year-old coed who won a new Datsun station wagon and $3000 worth of groceries.
The students expressed surprise they only won one-fifth of the prizes, even though they had submitted one-third of the entries. Hartsfield commented, "Mathematically it's feasible, but it seems like a low figure."
As the students had promised beforehand, they donated the car to the United Way. They used some of the cash to pay off the tax debt as well as the computer and printing costs of the stunt. They kept the gift certificates for themselves.
The 1975 sweepstakes caper was partially inspired by an attempt by Caltech students in 1969 to submit bulk entries to a Frito-Lay contest. However, the 1975 prank received far more media attention. In fact, McDonald's acknowledged that its contest received greater publicity because of the Caltech stunt than it otherwise would have. Nevertheless, McDonald's was not happy. It vowed it would make computer printouts invalid in future contests.
To this day, as a result of the Caltech stunt, the lawyers who write the rules for sweepstakes make sure never to include the phrase "enter as often as you wish."
The Caltech students remained unrepentant. The only regret they expressed was at having used a computer. As Steve Klein, one of the ringleaders of the stunt, explained, "We should have used offset printing. It's cheaper. It cost us about $500 for the computer."
Links and References
- Dave Swaim. (April 10, 1975). "Caltech stunt burns hamburger eaters." Star-News.
- Dave Swaim. (April 15, 1975). "McDonald's Gulps Caltech Caper." Star-News.
- "McDonald's Cries Foul: Caltech Computer KO's Contest." (April 16, 1975). Oakland Tribune.
- "Computer Devours Big Mac." (May 21, 1975). The Fresno Bee.
- Dave Swaim. (May 21, 1975). "Ol' McDonald's Hath a Charm: When they give away more than $50,000 worth of prizes." Star-News.
- "Students and Computer Win $10,000." (May 22, 1975). Oakland Tribune.
- Dodge, WA, Moulton, RB, Sigworth, HW, and Smith, AC. (1983). Legends of Caltech. Caltech Alumni Association.
- Neil Steinberg. (1992). If At All Possible Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks. St. Martin's Press: 114-117.