Chance Would Be A Fine Thing

1st November 2013

Heather Harris gets competitive, 21st century-style

You are more likely to be killed by a donkey than to win the National Lottery jackpot (although statistically this may depend on whether you do indeed work with ferocious donkeys or are fatally allergic to them).

Academics prefer the more accurate measurement of one in 13,983,816 (that’s the lottery, not the donkey), but curiously, this isn’t something that Camelot Group, the Hertfordshire-based Lotto organisers, decided to use as they gathered at their round table to devise their latest advertising slogans.

‘You've got to be in it to win it!’ is indeed factually correct and must be working, as the company appears confident that the recent doubling of the ticket price to £2 will not deter punters. And this is despite a recent spate of depressing documentaries featuring the misery and ultimate destitution of the majority of Lottery Millionaires, who seem to have a higher divorce rate than the average TV cop.

The fact is, though, that as a nation we are an optimistic lot. The mere whiff of a freebie has us reaching down the sofa for our ticket stub quicker than you can say ‘weekend rollover’.

And the National Lottery may be the Granddaddy of the lot but scratch the surface of today's social media-filled world and it doesn't take much skill or luck to uncover the sheer volume of competitions.

As Jason Dale, from the website Loquax tells me, “When we set ourselves up as a competition listings website in 1998 we had an average of thirty a week. By 2012 this was up to over two hundred a day. and we were inundated with questions from ‘compers’.”

Because, apparently, that's what we all are. Even if we've only once explained ‘in not more than 12 words’ why we eat Quaker Porridge Oats, in an effort to win a stuffed Goldilocks or a year’s supply of breakfast, we have taken on the title of 'comper'.

There's even a magazine called, somewhat unimaginatively, Compers News (perhaps they should run a contest inviting their readers to come up with a new name… a witty anagram perhaps or some clever word play). Or not. The problem with that is, as the magazine’s highly-prized editor, Steve Middleton, explains, “Those creative types of competitions have almost died out. Promoters know that people aren't interested in showing skill anymore.”

Like so many traditional arts, the ability to see how many words you can make out of the letters of ‘Persil Automatic Washing Up Liquid’ has been deleted one mega byte at a time by the World Wide Web.

“I remember spending five days in my local library researching the answers to a quiz on the back of a cereal packet. Now all anyone has to do is a few clicks on the internet. It’s the same with slogans: there are now sites like Windex and Winspiration that help write them for you,” Steve tells me wistfully, adding that, of course, if you do happen to find one of these skill-based competitions, “Enter immediately, as not many other people will be bothered to so the chances of winning are far higher!”

In fact, such is our demand for instant gratification with the minimum of effort (think the competition equivalent of Pot Noodle) that we don't even want to buy a product in order to enter. According to Steve, “Where once there were literally thousands of ‘purchase necessary’ competitons on offer, it's now down to about a hundred.”

Noting my quizzical expression, he explains that the goal of increased sales is not always why companies offer everything from ‘Spa breaks in the Caribbean’ (on Laughing Cow Cheese boxes in stores now) to ‘Brunch with Barbie’ (currently on offer by Hamleys). “Companies would increasingly rather have half a million extra ‘likes’ on their Facebook page than sell an extra half a million goods: it's all about getting brand recognition.”

And serious comper Jane Davies, from Middlesex, is quick to agree (presumably assuming she’ll get extra marks for speed…). “Almost all of the competitions I enter are on Twitter or Facebook and they usually just ask you to ‘like’ a page or retweet something. I can do twenty or thirty while standing in the Post Office queue and twenty more while sitting on my laptop watching TV in the evening!"

So not exactly Mastermind then. But such persistence pays off. Jane is not keen to divulge exactly how much she's won – but her postman is certainly kept busy. “The best things are not the material goods,” she says, “but the priceless experiences like top sporting finals and film premieres: things that my children will never forget.”
Her friend, Wendy Morrison agrees. “Yes, a year’s supply of Tampax did come in handy but the holidays to Paris, Milan, Dubai oh and Orlando were far more special,” she tells me, as she fights off the jet lag from her latest all-expenses-paid trip to New York with her young daughter.

Wendy first entered this quizzical world six years ago when her eldest son, Ben was fighting depression. As respite late at night she started playing Scrabble and Boggle online… “Then I suddenly won an invitation for Ben to go to the launch of the latest Xbox game.”

And, as every gambler knows, that first win is what hooks you in. “But it's very different,” Wendy is eager to stress. “We're not gambling because we never pay to enter. I tell everyone: never ring a premium phone line or even buy a stamp! These days even the TV competitions have a free on-line option.”

Such tips are bizarrely easy to come by in what should be a highly competitive ‘dog eat dog’ world. As well as Compers News, there are websites such as ThePrizeFinder, MoneySavingExpert and UK Competitions, all happily sharing advice on how to win.

“It's strange,” says Kirsten, from Harrow, “but compers are very generous with their information. They know I like film premieres so I am always being sent links to the latest opportunity.” Over the years, as well as walking the red carpet more times than Meryl Streep, Kirsten has won everything from a plastic bagel holder to several trips to the United States and £10,000 worth of MFI vouchers, “And I heard I'd won when I was sitting in the MFI car park about to go and buy a new kitchen, so I got it for free!”

Kirsten enters on average forty to fifty a week and wins one or two, but insists it's just a “fun hobby that doesn't interfere with the rest of my life. It really is all about the taking part. A lot of us winners actually give away lots of prizes.”

Such generosity was a necessity for Wendy when she won the top prize of £10,000 worth of gizmos from Currys and PCworld on ITV's Gadget Show. “The house was piled high, full of boxes. I ended up giving loads away to friends and family and the local hospice.”

So are there any downsides? Even not winning isn't actually a negative, since all these entrants have wasted is the time it takes for a couple of clicks or a tick of the box.

Martin Lewis at Moneysaving.com does make an excellent point (and, as we all know, points mean prizes): “Spam emails and texts can be a problem, as what promoters really want is contact details. This is their whole reason for enticing you in…”

Luckily, Steve's readers have the answer. “Most buy cheap mobile phones that they just use for competitions, and also open separate Gmail accounts for their entries. Compers know what they're doing – they don't get caught out!”

Clearly, those innocent days of sending off your artist’s impression of Billy Whizz to win a Beano Annual or taking a photo of your cat to win him a month's supply of Whiska’s Sardine Special have long gone – or have they?.

According to Edwin Mutton, the man with his finger on the competition buzzer at the Institute of Promotional Marketing (IPM), things could come full circle. Speaking recently, he suggested that in order to ‘stand out from the crowd’, companies may have to start becoming, “once again more creative with their approach to competitions”.

A Willy Wonka for the 21st century is what we need: a stampede to the supermarkets in search of that all elusive Golden Ticket. If Grandpa Bucket can do it without being hit by a falling donkey, then surely there's hope for us all.

Fingers crossed… oh, and one final tip – the most frequently drawn ball is the number 44. Since the National Lottery began in 1994, it's come up 253 times.

Some names have been changed.

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