Why Do Canadian Sweepstakes Have Skill-Testing Questions for Winners?

In Canada, You Can't Win Sweepstakes Unless You Complete One Final Step...

Image of a Young Woman Trying to Answer a Skill Testing Question
Canadians Must Answer Skill Questions to Win Prizes... but Why?. Image (c) Peter Fisher/Corbis/Getty Images

Have you ever wondered why Canadians have to answer skill-testing questions when they win sweepstakes? And why US residents don't have to — even when they win the same giveaway?

If you enter sweepstakes for Canadians, you'll usually find a strange math equation on the entry form. You may notice a line in the rules that says something like:

"If a Canadian resident wins a prize, that person must also correctly answer, within a 5 minute time period, a mathematical skill-testing question without the benefit of any calculating devices, before the prize will be awarded."

That seems pretty strange. Why do giveaway winners need to prove their math skills? Are sweepstakes sponsors discriminating against Canadians?

Skill-Testing Questions Aren't Discrimination — They're Canadian Law

Many people wonder if the skill-testing questions are designed to prevent Canadians from winning as often as residents of other countries do.

The answer is no. The skill-testing questions are designed to help Canadian winners, not prevent them.

Sweepstakes open to Canadians don't include skill-testing questions because the sponsors don't want Canadians to win. The questions don't affect anyone's chances of being drawn as a winner, and they're usually easy enough that they don't stop the prize from being awarded.

Skill-testing questions are there because they are required by Canadian sweepstakes law.

If you've read the Introduction to Contests, Sweepstakes, and Lotteries, you know that lotteries have three major components: the prizes have value, the sponsor benefits from the sweepstakes financially, and the winner is chosen at random. To avoid being an illegal private lottery, at least one of the three components must be removed.

In the United States, the sponsor usually removes the financial benefit, also known as consideration, to avoid being classified as an illegal lottery. That's why most sweepstakes state in their rules that you don't have to pay to enter and that a purchase won't affect your chances of winning.

But Canadian sweepstakes law requires that sponsors remove the third component, winners are chosen by luck, for a giveaway to be legal. A giveaway cannot use pure luck to determine who wins. There must be at least some element of skill involved, according to the Canadian Competition Act.

To remove the element of chance, sponsors narrow the field of potential winners by requiring a skill-testing question to enter their contests. Every entrant does not have the same chance to win; only those who at least pass the skill-testing question are eligible to win prizes.

Of course, this is only a technicality, since most people answer the skill-testing question without any trouble. The questions must be somewhat challenging, but they're not generally difficult.

What Are the Requirements for a Skill-Testing Question?

While an entrant shouldn't have to be a genius to answer a skill-testing question, the question can't be a no-brainer, either. 

An easy math testing question is the minimum required to hold a legal Canadian contest or sweepstakes. Some Canadian sweepstakes go a step farther and ask entrants to answer a trivia question or another question that is a bit more difficult.

Canadian courts have agreed that a four-part mathematical test such as "155 plus 33 minus four divided by 2" is enough to qualify as a skill-testing question, as long as winners are not allowed to use a calculator or other aid to answer the question. Even so, many contests use even easier math tests for their skill-testing questions. To date, these haven't been challenged in court, so there's no concrete decision about whether they go far enough.

Another option for Canadian giveaways is to hold a true contest where the entrants are judged based on their skills. Of course, winners of skill-based contests like recipe or photo contests don't need to answer a skill-testing question.

Which Sweepstakes Must Include Skill-Testing Questions?

Sweepstakes sponsors are required to ask all Canadian winners skill-testing questions. That means that not only do sweepstakes based in Canada have to ask them, but also sponsors of any giveaway open to Canadians.

To simplify things, many giveaways ask all of their winners to answer the skill-testing questions. This reduces the risk that they make a mistake and don't properly test a Canadian winner. However, it would be perfectly legal to exempt residents of other countries from having to answer.

Controversy Over Skill-Testing Questions

Although they are designed to protect consumers, using skill-testing questions for Canadian giveaways has caused controversy on occasion. Many find them unfair, especially for people with disabilities.

For example, in 2008, Tim Horton's initially refused to award a GPS prize to a learning-disabled winner, according to this Globe and Mail article.

The winner, Sandra Poitras, eventually received her prize but said: "I think [skill-testing questions are] wrong. I didn’t enter a draw. I won it."

Is it fair that people with learning disabilities like dyscalculia aren't able to win prizes? Who does that protect?

On the other hand, there's a case to be made that the skill-testing questions are too easy.

"You don't have to have any type of aptitude," said Michael Katz in a Wired.com article. "It is simply a way around... the laws."

How Skill-Testing Questions Affect Sweepstakes Jargon

This quirk of Canadian sweepstakes law affects not only the winners but also the jargon of the Canadian giveaway community.

In the United States, randomly-drawn giveaways are called "sweepstakes," whereas giveaways with an element of skill are called "contests." You can read more in this Guide to Sweepstakes Terminology.

Because skill-testing questions eliminate randomly drawn winners, Canadians technically don't have sweepstakes at all. They use one word for both judged contests and sweepstakes: "contests."

While Americans call sweepstakes fans "sweepers," Canadians usually call them "contestors." Only contests really exist by law in Canada.