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Esurance Twitter contest goes viral but ties company to offensive tweets

In a post-Super Bowl campaign, the insurance company said it would give $1.5 million to someone who used its hashtag. Any tweet could be eligible. And then came the garbage.

Esurance is offering $1.5 million to someone who tweets a specific hashtag. But many are doing so alongside very offensive terms.
Screen shot by CNET

There are a million stories in the naked city, and all of them are using the hashtag #EsuranceSave30. And boy, are some of them offensive.

Sunday night just after the Super Bowl ended, the insurance company Esurance announced a contest in which it would give away $1.5 million to one lucky Twitter user who included that hashtag in a tweet. The contest quickly went viral, making it (and Esurance) the biggest social media winner of the evening -- and likely this year's Oreo.

The hashtag was a reference to the fact that the contest was announced in the first commercial after the end of the Super Bowl, and that by waiting until the game was over, the ad's cost was 30 percent less than it would have been during the game.

"The Office" star John Krasinski set the whole thing off in the ad. Given some of the nasty tweets that were sent out, Krasinski and Esurance may rethink the way they frame future contests.

The Twitter campaign was extremely simple: Use the hashtag #EsuranceSave30 in a tweet -- any tweet at all -- before 1 p.m. PT on Tuesday, and you're eligible to win. According to the a FAQ explaining some of the rules (PDF), "All you have to do is post or 'Tweet' on Twitter the following hashtag: #EsuranceSave30. That's it!"

What's more, there are no limits to the number of times someone can tweet the hashtag, with each new tweet counting as an entry. "You can enter as often as you want," Esurance wrote in the FAQ. "Just remember that each entry must be an individual tweet using the hashtag."

With such a low barrier to entry and the fact that there didn't seem to be any reason players couldn't simply retweet someone else's entry, the hashtag quickly trended worldwide, with thousands (or more) tweets that included the hashtag flooding Twitter's servers.

Many were simply the hashtag itself. Others were pleas for the money. Still others were (sometimes) clever ways to incorporate the hashtag into something that, say, affected an air of being too cool to play a stupid Twitter hashtag game. For example, Twitter user @codytownsend tweeted, "Think I can carefully disguise a tweet about #EsuranceSave30 to make it seem like I'm not trying to win $1.5 million?"

But there were also a large number of tweets using the #EsuranceSave30 hashtag that linked it to wide varieties of extremely offensive terms, or even attacked the insurance company itself. Think of the worst obscenity or racist taunt, and you can be sure someone tweeted it alongside the hashtag. Consider this from @AdamWednesdays: "Every tweet with #EsuranceSave30 is an entry to win? Then let me use this tweet to say: Esurance was founded by Nazi war criminals."

Or this one from @MinnesotaMess: "Because getting someone rich and famous to sleep with you and then poking a hole in the condom is too much work. #EsuranceSave30."

Are they eligible to win? While the FAQ stated that "All you have to do is post or 'tweet' on Twitter the ... hashtag: #EsuranceSave30," there is also a reference (in rule No. 16) to what might be considered "inappropriate." As Esurance wrote in the FAQ, "Your Tweet will be considered inappropriate if it contains profanity or is in any way violent, disruptive, harassing, false, misleading, defamatory, abusive, racist, homophobic, or sexist."

Yet it's hard to say definitively from the FAQ that there's anything that declares that an inappropriate tweet would be disqualified -- not when the first rule says quite clearly that any tweet with the hashtag is eligible. Rule No. 27 states that the winner of the contest will have to go through a background check to "confirm that the unofficial winner and/or alternate is eligible to enter and potentially win and may also be used to determine if the unofficial winner and/or alternate has not participated in any behavior that is obnoxious, inappropriate, threatening, and illegal or that is intended to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any other person and will reflect negatively on or embarrass the Sponsor's brand in planned media and publicity activities."

And indeed, the contest's official rules, which are only referred to in the much more visible FAQ, states that Esurance "may disqualify entries if the Entry and related tweet includes inappropriate, offensive or other derogatory language or information." But that's all it says. It "may" disqualify them.

That begs the question: What did Esurance expect to happen here? Certainly it expected -- and got -- thousands and thousands of people to play its game, tweet its hashtag, and make the brand a household name (for the time being at least). You can bet the company will far more than recoup the cost of paying out the prize in new business.

But did it know that people would be associating the game with the most lewd and offensive terms? Did it really want the company's name linked to words like Nazi, slanderous Obamacare attacks, blatantly racist epithets, swear words of every variety, and much more? It's hard to imagine it didn't foresee that happening, especially when the rules make reference to such behavior.

In a statement to CNET, an Esurance spokesperson pointed to the rules, saying that the company may disqualify inappropriate tweets. He also said that "It's unfortunate that people would use negative or offensive terms in association with our campaign, but that is the nature of the Internet and social media and we can't control how people choose to respond. The number of tweets that are supportive and enthusiastic about participating and possibly winning the prize vastly outnumbers those that potentially violate our sweepstakes rules."

Update, 9:42 a.m. PT: This story now reflects more details about the contest's rules.

Update, 11:56 a.m PT: This story now includes comment from Esurance.