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Carry on comping: Promotional competitions, engagement, and addiction

I’m not sure about anywhere else in the world, but here in the UK we have a section of the adult community who describe themselves as ‘compers’. Compers are people who make a hobby (and sometimes even a living) from entering competitions – particularly the ones that end with a ‘tie-breaker’ question such as: In no more than 25 words, complete the sentence “I like [insert name of brand] because…”. These competitions are typically free to enter (although a few companies charge a small administration fee or make money from the cost of a premium rate telephone call).

Back in the 1990s, I appeared on a number of television programmes along with people like Britain’s most famous comper at the time called “Rita the competer” who had won prizes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds including multiple houses, cars, holidays, and electrical goods. Most of the compers that I met at that time – all women I have to add – spent most (if not all) of their spare time cutting out and filling in competitions from magazines, newspapers and newsletters.

More recently, compers have gone digital and is inextricably linked to the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter. The comping community has many ‘comping’ magazines, newsletters and websites (for instance sites such as Compers Corner, Crazy Compers, Compers Weekly, and Just Comps). There are also loads of blog sites updating compers of all the latest offline and (now mostly) online competitions. Today’s compers appear to spend hours on the main social media websites entering competitions run directly by commercial operators. There also appears to be more men becoming compers which may be due to it becoming an increasingly online activity (I say “appear” because I know of no empirical research that has ever been carried out on the ‘comping’ community). Now compers can enter dozens (even hundreds if you click on some of the comping sites listed above) of competitions every week without spending any of their own money on stamps and envelopes.

So why are there so many competitons out there? In order to remain competitive, commercial retailers need to make use of the wide variety “tools” at their disposal within the marketing management toolkit (e.g., sales promotions, advertising). However, there is growing awareness that non-price-based promotions (e.g., consumer competitions) add value for the consumer while meeting a range of marketing communications objectives (which is where the world of comping has originated).

A recent paper by Philip DesAutels and colleagues at the Luleå University of Technology (Sweden) noted that marketing goals for contests may be external to the contest (e.g., increasing product, service or brand awareness), or they may be internal to a contest (e.g., directly increasing product adoption or sales). More commonly, their goals are a combination of the two. Their research into sales promotion effectiveness introduces two measures of contest performance: in-contest engagement and post-contest product interest. They call on the research community to do further work into effective ways to measure and assess these two goals as they believe they “will serve as an immeasurable aid to practice and research”. They also note that activities that are intrinsically motivating are undertaken because they are interesting, enjoyable or satisfying. The act of doing them is the reward. Activities that are extrinsically motivating are undertaken to achieve rewards that are separate and distinct from the activity itself.

Earlier today I appeared on BBC Breakfast’s television show talking about the psychology of ‘compers’ and to what extent compers are like gamblers and to whether it is possible for compers to become ‘addicted to their hobby. The nearest comparison to comping in the gambling world – at least in terms of motivation to carry out the activity – is lottery gambling. The main motivating factor in both comping and playing the lottery is the chance to potentially win a large (often life changing or life enhancing) prize for very little financial outlay. It’s as simple as that. However, there are other similarities including the activity being fun, and the social interaction with friends who engage in like-minded activities.

In relation to ‘comping addiction’ I have never come across a case either professionally or personally that fulfill my criteria for addiction. However, my view as with any behaviour that offers the potential for constant rewards and reinforcement, it is theoretically possible. I’ve certainly met people (admittedly in the confines of a television studio) who claimed that ‘comping’ had taken over their life and that it was causing conflict in some aspect of their life (usually relationship conflict where husbands complained that their wives were spending all their leisure time doing competitions).

However, I really don’t think any of the excessive compers I have met were addicted to the behaviour because the activity was life affirming and life enhancing. As I never tire of telling my students or the media, the key difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it. On that criteria alone, the chances of meeting someone addicted to comping is remote.

Finally, it is worth noting that as long ago as 1991, Ward and Hill wrote that “virtually no work has been done in advertising on the psychology of promotional games. Thus, much opportunity exists”. The 2011 paper by Philip DesAutels and colleagues said it “is therefore surprising that in the 20 years since the publication of Ward and Hill’s article, so little research has been undertaken to inform the theory and practice of promotional competitions and contests”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

DesAutels, P., Berthon, P. & Salehi-Sangari, E. (2011). Rising to the challenge: A model of contest performance. Journal of Financial Services Marketing, 16, 263–274

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Instant-win promotions: Part of the gambling environment? Education and Health, 15, 62-63.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Instant-win products and prize draws: Are these forms of gambling? Journal of Gambling Issues, 9. Located at:

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Ward, J.C. and Hill, R.P. (1991) Designing effective promotional games: Opportunities and problems. Journal of Advertising, 20(3), 69-81.