AOL offered a contest with celebrity voices -- then bungled it.

As the contest kicked off its first week, AOL seeded their Welcome Screen with pointers to keyword "Celebrity Contest". Users were supposed to name the celebrity saying "You've Got Mail", then submit their guess for a chance to win a BMW.

AOL clearly wants everyone to enter. On the entry form, users have to pick the correct choice from just three possibilities -- Hugh Grant, Mick Jagger, and Elton John. The contest area even included a hint -- a link to AOL's Rollling Stones area (in which Hugh Grant and Elton John are conspicuously absent.)

In a stupefying act of misdirection, AOL insisted to the L.A. Times that the contest was not a new advertising strategy to highlight companies contributing prizes. But immediately after entering the contest, all users receive an ad for AOL's "AutoVantage" area...

But the best-laid plans can go awry. AOL blithely launched a full-court press to promote the stealth advertisement. Even users signing off from AOL were exhorted to visit the "Celebrity Contest." AOL issued a press release about the contest, and got the requisite promotional press coverage they were seeking. They probably settled back to watch the hits roll in.

And then something went wrong.

The contest began after recurring technical problems plagued the system nationwide. AOL experienced an e-mail brownout the week before -- and days earlier, users were unable to reliably sign onto AOL for over four hours.

So as users tried to enter the contest Wednesday afternoon, they received an error message stating "Location to send request is unknown." AOL was apparently unable to receive their entries -- but clicking on the okay button brought up the ad anyways! Users went from "location is unknown" to "Thanks for entering!"

AOL techs advised users to "try again later". True to form, they underestimated the delays horribly. The problem persisted for six hours....

What's the larger lesson from this story? Some have question AOL's motivations. "You wouldn't think a juggernaut like America Online would need a celebrity-laden contest to boost its popularity," the L.A. Times noted. It's known AOL is desperately seeking cash -- and in fact, in the entire ten-week-run of the contest, AOL plans to give out just $50,963 in prizes. AOL needs to make up for the money they lost when the system stopped charging $3.00 an hour. They'd hoped money from ads would bolster the system's profitability -- but in the last three months, they actually reported less money from advertising than the three months before! Their only hope may lie in on-line transactions -- taking a cut of the money people might spend if they shopped on AOL. And the biggest cuts would come from expensive items like automobiles.

Commentators have already raised questions about the way AOL exploits their customers. But this latest incident creates new suspicions about features like AOL's voice contest. It's real purpose may be to get subscribers to look at an ad for AOL's car area.

Even if the contest itself isn't available....