Refreshing Pepsi's Super Bowl Alternative Pepsi Refresh, which provides grants for creative charitable ideas, will change because of complaints that some used aggressive tactics to win. Pepsi launched the contest last year in lieu of spending $20 million on Super Bowl ads in the hope that it would more effectively spread the brand.

Refreshing Pepsi's Super Bowl Alternative

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

If you watched last year's Super Bowl you saw no ads for Pepsi. First time in 23 years. Instead, the company decided to use $20 million it would've spent on commercials for an Internet contest to fund creative charitable projects. The Pepsi Refresh contest has been a big hit.

The company's bringing it back for another year. But it's also changing the rules, after complaints that some competitors were just a little too creative in rounding up votes. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Kris Horlacher has a small charity in Dayton, Ohio called Shoes for the Shoeless, which buys shoes and socks for needy children.

Ms. KRIS HORLACHER (Shoes for the Shoeless): The shoes they wear don't fit. They're falling apart. They held together with duct tape. There's shoes with no bottoms.

FESSLER: So last December, she decided to enter the Pepsi Refresh contest and compete for one of the $50,000 grants awarded each month. And much to her glee, she won, beating out hundreds of other contestants.

Ms. HORLACHER: We just won by the sheer numbers of regular people in Dayton, Ohio who voted. Our college campuses voted for us. Our high schools voted for us. We were on our local paper every week.

FESSLER: But there was also this: Horlacher says as her group moved up in the voting, she was approached by some other children's charities and asked to join a voting bloc. Since the contest allows anyone to vote online for up to 10 projects a day, the pitch was, if you vote for our projects, we'll vote for yours. Horlacher was leery at first, but decided, since it wasn't against the rules, to go along.

Ms. HORLACHER: If you're going to vote 10 times, you might as well vote for other people with like-minded projects. So, I don't know that I see anything wrong with it. But on the other hand, I had an uneasy feeling about it.

Ms. ALLISON FINE (Author): All contests like this are going to have a game of whack-a-mole between the sponsors and people who want to game the system.

FESSLER: Allison Fine is an expert on non-profits and social media. And says it makes sense that groups want to maximize their chances. But losers have complained, especially about one voting bloc, the Progressive Slate, which has won almost $1.7 million so far. Still, Fine thinks that Pepsi has done a good job keeping things under control.

Ms. FINE: And they've been very straightforward. If a problem has been raised, they've investigated it. And certainly with the case of the Mr. Magic problem, they rectified it.

FESSLER: The Mr. Magic problem, as she calls it, involves one contestant who was disqualified for allegedly using a paid service run by someone in India, known as Mr. Magic, to help generate votes. Pepsi says it audits all the winning tallies but that now it's now going further.

Marketing director Anamaria Irazabal says when the contest resumes in April, there will no longer be a $250,000 award category.

Ms. ANAMARIA IRAZABAL (Director of Marketing, Brand Pepsi): The $250 was attracting big national organizations that the majority of time muscled out the little guy. And we want to make sure that we're there for the little guy to really refresh America one community at a time.

FESSLER: She says instead the contest will give out twice as many smaller awards - about 60 a month. They'll also limit people to only five votes a day, and make other changes to keep the focus on helping the best local projects, and at the same time, she admits, helping Pepsi's bottom line.

Ms. IRAZABAL: The idea is doing well by doing good.

FESSLER: Pepsi sales have dropped over the past year, but Irazabal says the company is looking more at the long-term and that it wouldn't be extending the contest, if it didn't think it was helping the Pepsi brand, along with hundreds of worthy causes.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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