"He should be a model."
Your child's grandparents, your friends, and even total strangers have been telling you this since your child was three months old. Your friend keeps asking you to vote for her baby in an online photo competition, and you think, "My baby is so much cuter than that one. Maybe I should enter him. We have a huge extended family, so I'm sure he'll get a lot of votes. And if the strangers online are like the strangers in the grocery store, they'll all up-vote him too. If I don't submit a photo, I'm really just leaving college money on the table."
After losing hours scrolling through your last two months of photos, you submit your favorite. You spend the next few months constantly refreshing your e-mail, sure that you'll find confirmation of what you already know: your kid is the cutest one in the universe.
The personal let-down of losing is hard enough, because you could already picture the baby room makeover, paid bills, a family vacation, and Ivy League tuition, but you're not the only runner-up. Here's what we all stand to lose from baby photo competitions, and what a narrow few stand to gain.
Some contests, like those run by The CuteKid and MyStarKid, run continuously, with new opportunities each month. Most contests for individual brands, like Gerber or Parents Magazine, are annual. No matter what the submission timeframe, the overall format of the contests is roughly the same: submit a photo and wait for the praise and/or money to roll in.
Well, you're not quite done. If you want to win the big money (usually in the form of college scholarship accounts), you'll need to pay the websites for your entries. At The CuteKid and MyStarKid, for example, you'll need to pay $19.95 per photo entered. Well, you have to spend money to make money, right?
Wrong. You're not likely to see a return on that investment because of how these competitions are organized.
At The CuteKid, for example, prize amounts for pay-per-entry competitions are linked to the number of contestants. The CuteKid has five age categories: baby, toddler, preschooler, big kid, pre-teen. If any one of those categories has fewer than 50 entrants, the prize money can be reduced. Assuming you want to compete for the full prize money, the absolute best odds you have of winning an individual category are about one in 50. That means that, even with the best possible odds, 98 percent of parents are wasting their money.
More cost-conscious parents stick with the free contests, where the odds of winning are even lower. As of July 31, there were 5,651 pages of internet entries for The CuteKid's July "People's Choice" competition. At nine kids per page, that's over 50,000 kids competing for one prize. Even if you spend the entire month nagging every person you know to vote for your baby, your chances of winning are low.
In all of these contests, the second runner-up is logical reasoning. Our love for our children and dreams for their futures make it easy to ignore the odds.
Even if you defeat all the odds and your child wins the big prize, you haven't actually won the cash. If you look at the fine print, you'll see that the scholarships advertised by many of these competitions is not in present dollars, but in future dollars. The big cash prize at MyStarKid is $25,000, except that it's not $25,000 in 2017 dollars. Instead, it's worth an amount that is supposed to grow to $25,000 by the time your child goes to college.
If you scroll through The CuteKid's website, you'll notice an asterisk next to every single use of the term $25,000*, including on the giant check given to the most recent winner. To figure out what that means, you'll have to dig into the website's rules, where you'll learn that the prize money is a $10,000 529 plan, not $25,000. 529 plans are great ways to save for college, but it's misleading to say that your child is winning $25,000 when in reality she's earning less than half that amount.
Because the odds of winning are so low, baby photo contests are akin to playing the lottery with your child's college savings. Instead of entering your two-year-old in a photo contest, consider opening an educational savings account. If you invest the price of a photo contest entry each month ($19.95) in an account with a four percent interest rate, in 16 years you would have over $5,000. That's not going to cover a college education, but it's a start.
Your child is not going to win one of these contests. You know who will? The contest organizers.
As parent Buzz Bishop learned after his kid took second place in a Cheerios contest, parents who submit their children's photos may see their kids plastered over cereal boxes all across the country without any additional compensation. That's because while you own your image, by submitting it, you've given the company permission to use it.
If you submit a photo to The CuteKid, you grant its parent company "the perpetual right to use and edit your photos on our site, as well as for marketing purposes." At MyStarKid, you'll grant "a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free license to modify, rearrange, copy, reproduce and adapt the images only to fit the format required for product web pages and marketing materials." MyStarKid's terms even include protection for media forms that haven't been invented yet. They can reproduce your image in any audiovisual format "whether now existing or hereafter devised." They can do this in "any manner without further review, notice, approval, consideration, or compensation."
Depending on the competition, you may have even signed away your right to sue the competition for reusing your photo. MyStarKid's terms include an arbitration clause, which means that if you feel the company has wronged you in any way, you can't take them to court.
Even the companies that do not reuse your images can profit from them, because they can still sell you. Some of the competitions allow people to vote up to five times a day. One reason for that is that the websites can then tell potential advertisers that they have repeat visitors to the site. Your frequent votes make you attractive to advertisers, because they can ensure that you'll be viewing their advertisements five times a day for a month, and enlisting your family members, friends, and co-workers to do the same.
You already know that your kids are the cutest, funniest, and smartest ones in the world, just look at your camera roll! Instead of entering contests with near-zero chance of success, why not invest in what matters: taking hundreds more photos to keep proving that point to yourself day after day.