For the past few years The Washington Post has been sponsoring an annual Peeps diorama contest where the winners receive a modest prize and a profile in the Easter Sunday edition of the paper highlighting their marshmallow candy creations and it promotes the idea of Peeps as Art. The winners and those listed in the honorable mention have created such memorable pieces that show what one can do with Peeps besides eating them. I have tried out for that contest myself in 2008 and 2009 only to have both of my entries fail to make even honorable mention. For the second time I participated in it, I grew ambitious with the desire to create a very unique diorama that would earn me at least honorable mention. For nearly a year after the 2008 contest (when I submitted Peep Floyd) I began to collect Peeps from not only Easter but also the ones from Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day as well and I used them to create Pop Star Peepney Pursued by the Peeperazzi. I thought that having different Peeps besides bunnies and chicks (I used those as well) would make my diorama stand out from the 1,000 other submissions that were entered that year. Unfortunately for me, I was wrong. I stopped participating in the contest after 2009 because I learned that so many people submit their dioramas to the contest each year that one could spend hours creating an interesting diorama only to have it get lost in the shuffle and I just didn’t think it was worth the time, money, and effort.
Recently The Washington Post has announced a call for entries in the 2013 Peeps diorama contest. While looking at the website for the contest I came upon this page under the rules for this year’s Peeps diorama contest that includes the following:
By entering, each Entrant agrees that Sponsor may use his or her entry (e.g., name, diorama, photos, and related information) in any and all media throughout the universe and in perpetuity for any purpose as determined by Sponsor, including promotional purposes, without additional compensation.
I’ll admit that I briefly laughed at the phrase “throughout the universe.” Had Newt Gingrich gotten the Republican nomination then been elected president last year and he actually made good on his promise to establish a lunar base for the United States, The Washington Post‘s rights to those Peeps diorama images would’ve applied there as well. That clause could also prevent those Peep diorama images from being subjected to the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.
Meanwhile back on Earth, while I was browsing the shelves in the local Books-A-Million store back in early January, I saw that particular clause in action. Among the 2013 calendars being sold at a post-New Year’s discount, I saw this one.
Thanks to that clause, the original creators of the dioramas are having their work displayed on a calendar that’s being sold to the general public and they don’t get to share in any of the profits from the sale of that calendar.
If creating a winning Peeps diorama is something that can be done in 30 minutes or less, that would be one thing. But I know from personal experience that the creators of the dioramas featured in the 2013 calendar have probably spent many hours planning the diorama, gathering the materials for the diorama, creating the diorama, and taking flattering pictures of the diorama to submit to the contest. That’s because if you really want to have a chance of having your diorama noticed by the contest judges among the literally hundreds of other submissions, you have to spend a lot of hours working on that diorama. If you are a student and/or have a regular job and/or have a family, you have to juggle them with the demands of finishing your diorama in time to make the contest entry deadline.
In addition, anyone who has ever worked on a Peeps diorama quickly learns that, as an art medium, marshmallow is a difficult substance to work with. A fresh Peep can quickly sag if you glue it upright. One can leave the Peeps in open air for a few days until they become stiff so they’ll retain their shapes but you have to be careful to not accidentally snap one in half if you don’t intend to do so. Many contest winners have used Peeps to mold figures other than the usual Easter bunnies and chicks (such as a tiger or the Sphinx), which can be a challenge since marshmallow is a sticky substance (especially when exposed to heat or moisture like the natural oils in human hands) that doesn’t always maintain whatever shape the artist has created.
Basically you deal with the challenges of working with marshmallow, spend hours creating a diorama with a meticulous attention to detail, sign a release forfeiting your right to earn any future profit from your diorama, and end up being a winner of the contest only to see your entry being used on a calendar and you won’t make any money from it.
Sure you might say that it’s just a calendar, why am I making a big deal of it. Let’s say that The Washington Post has made a really huge profit from the sales of this calendar. What’s to stop them from coming out with calendars for 2014, 2015, or beyond? What’s to stop them from branching out into other areas like creating posters, postcards, and limited-edition framed prints based on those images? Or publishing a fancy expensive coffee table book using those images? Or maybe licensing those images to other companies so they could create t-shirts, sweatshirts, buttons, or stickers? Theoretically all these things could happen and the original diorama artists won’t see a single penny in royalties from it.
If it weren’t for those who chose to enter the contest in previous years, there wouldn’t be any material that could be used to create a Peeps diorama calendar for this year. These diorama artists entered the contest for the fun of it in the hopes that it will give them brief exposure in the media, a corporation is using their material to make a profit, and the artists can’t do anything about it because they signed a release before they submitted their entries. If an artist refused to sign the release out of principal, The Washington Post would automatically disqualify that entry.
If you are an aspiring Peeps diorama artist who dreams of winning this year’s contest, I would urge you to think twice before you enter the contest. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable to have The Washington Post use your diorama for spin-off products that are designed to produce profits for The Washington Post and Just Born (the makers of Peeps) and you won’t be able to share in those profits.
UPDATE (March 7, 2017): According to this article on the DCist site, The Washington Post will no longer hold the annual Peeps diorama contest. After 10 years The Post has decided to move on and discontinue it.
UPDATE (April 16, 2017): After The Washington Post decided to drop its Peeps contest, the alternative weekly The Washington City Paper decided to pick up the mantle and hold its own Peeps diorama contest. They managed to pull it off this year despite the short notice and, following the original contest tradition, The Washington City Paper has just posted its winning entries on Easter Sunday. As of this writing, it’s very likely that The Washington City Paper will continue holding the contest next year and in future years.