All is not well with the Pepsi Refresh Project, an online cause marketing campaign that allows participants to vote on where the company donates its cash. Nonprofit groups vying for funding from the campaign are now claiming that manipulated results have propelled recent winners to the top.
The Refresh Project has been a success by any measure—Pepsi has given away over $20 million dollars to organizations working on everything from seafood farms that help displaced Gulf Coast seafood workers to anti-cyberbullying campaigns. In return, Pepsi has received more positive PR than it ever could have by spending the same amount of money on advertising.
But the latest allegations could tarnish Pepsi's do-gooder reputation if the company doesn't act fast. The New York Times reports that nonprofits participating in the Refresh Project, including exotic animal sanctuary Three Ring Ranch and animal shelter Kritter Kountry, are claiming that a third-party service is illegally gathering votes for some of the organizations selected for funding. The service, represented by someone called "Mr. Magic," supposedly gathers votes for nonprofits in exchange for cash or a share of the Refresh Project winnings. At least one of the jilted nonprofits received—and ignored—a solicitation from the service.
Pepsi, for its part, is denying that there is a problem. The company explained in a statement:
We do not discuss specifics related to our proprietary security measures in order to maintain their confidentiality; however, many methods are used to identify fraudulent votes and remove them from the system. We take any allegation of fraud very seriously and once we have completed a thorough review of the facts, we will take appropriate action.
Pepsi uses a third-party service, Flying Aces Technology, to assess the validity of its nonprofit leader board. But this is clearly not enough to keep fraudsters—or at least claims of fraud—out of the contest. If the company doesn't publicly root out cheaters, the Refresh Project could lose its credibility as a place for worthy nonprofits to find funding.