Gini Dietrich

Belly Ballot Hoax: Communication Gone Wrong

By: Gini Dietrich | March 26, 2013 | 

Belly Ballot Hoax- Communication Gone WrongThis is a couple of weeks old, but I can’t stop thinking about it…

A start-up called Belly Ballot created a contest to pay an expectant mom $5,000 to let the Internet name her baby.

It goes something like this: Natasha Hill was having a hard time deciding on a name for unborn child, which is due in September. She also had some credit card debt she wanted to wipe clean and start saving for college tuition before the baby was born. So she entered a contest to let total strangers name her baby.

The catch? She only gets the cash if she actually gives her child the name the Internet voted most popular.

The blogosphere was all up in arms about it: “A real mom wouldn’t let complete strangers name her baby!” and “Quick! Someone get her a baby name book!”

It turns out the blogosphere was right. A real mom wouldn’t let complete strangers name her baby.

Belly Ballot Hoax

Natasha Hill is an actress hired by Belly Ballot to create publicity (and that they did, starting with The Today Show and growing into New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, MSN, and blogs galore) and she’s not even pregnant.

Nope. Not pregnant. It was a hoax.

When asked why they did it this way, founder Lacey Moler said, “We came up with the idea for the contest and we knew it would be controversial. We’re a start-up and we wanted to control the situation. We never thought it would get this big.”

I’ve read just about every story I can find about this. I’ve read the story of how Belly Ballot was created. The founders seem like genuinely good people who have a cool idea for a company and just want it to succeed.

But either they don’t have a communications expert on their team or on their advisory board or who they have either isn’t experienced enough yet or is unethical. I prefer to think they just need someone on their advisory board who knows how to help start-ups gain communication traction.

Brand Awareness and Reputation Management

Some tips for Lacey, her team, and any other organization looking to use social media, traditional media, and events to create brand awareness and build your reputation:

  1. Nothing beats hard work. Creating a fake contest, announcing a fake winner, and not thinking about what will happen if you get caught is the wrong way to go about things. There isn’t an easy button. By doing it this way, Belly Ballot has undermined the trust they had managed to build in a very short time and no one will want to cover their story for a very long time.
  2. You can’t control the situation. I hear this a lot from business owners: We won’t do it because we can’t control it. Look, you’ve never been in control; you just had the perception of being so because no one could talk back. But now they can and they have huge megaphones. If you’re going to grow a business, you have to use the web to do it (not necessarily social, but the web) and you can’t control that. Instead, control your operations, your culture, and your talent. The rest will come.
  3. Social media is unkind. If you lie, fake it, or create an untrue story, you will be found out. Every time. It isn’t like the old days where it would take years for someone to figure out what’s really going on. With all the information we have at our fingertips, you will be found out quickly and it will spread like wildfire.
  4. If there are no entries, there are no entries. There are plenty of contests that just don’t fly. I’ve been involved in some of them. I’m sure you have, too. Clients or bosses will want you to either choose a winner from current customers or, like this story, hire someone to play the winner. Don’t do it! Don’t give in! It’s not ethical, it’s not right, and the publicity you’ll gain won’t be worth the bad publicity you have to manage when you’re found out.
  5. Always be ethical…to a fault. I will get accused of being too naive or a Pollyanna with this one, but I really believe honesty is the best policy. Don’t create whisper campaigns about your competitors, don’t lie to journalists and bloggers, and don’t create something out of nothing. Spin Sucks.

Perhaps there is a second blog post in what Lacey and her team do now with all this reputation management they have to do.

Now I leave it in your court. What advice would you give the Belly Ballot team?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I think now they just need to move forward, admitting they blew it at the beginning. Plain and simple. 
    Great list of tips. And I believe everyone should just name their kids Ken

    • @KenMueller Ken if it’s a boy and Ginny if it’s a girl (not spelled my way because it’s a pain).

      • @ginidietrich Well, I was thinking Kendra for a girl, but OK. It’s your blog. I’ll let you have that one.

        • @KenMueller You’re so good to me.

        • belllindsay

          @KenMueller  @ginidietrich Let’s just go with Lindsay. It works for either sex.

        • @belllindsay  @ginidietrich let’s not.

        • @belllindsay  @KenMueller  @ginidietrich Or Ashley, Blair, Alex, Dakota..
          Wait, what do you mean we can’t offer a good unisex name for this internet chick to use. Damn! Send in the killer dolphins and the attack squirrels immediately!

        • @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes  @belllindsay  @KenMueller  @ginidietrich ehh you should just make up a name: like we (my husband & I did) Tober – and everyone loves his name.

  • Linking to the buzz about your ‘fake’ story on your website = still haven’t figured out that what you did was a bad idea Lacey.

    • @ryancox Where did you find that?! I looked and the only stuff I could find was from last year, which led me to believe they had taken it all down. Maybe they missed one?

      • @ginidietrich I swear someone was reading your blog Gin-eeee. Because when I went to get a screen shot and share the link, it was gone. Maybe it was just one they missed. (It just happened to be the first one I clicked)

  • Always be ethical…to a fault…I concur, and maybe that is naive thinking, but I sure sleep well at night. However…..comma…..sometimes bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, right?

    • @bdorman264 No, I don’t agree bad publicity is better than nothing. Sure, people are talking about the company, but it’s not good. It hurts your reputation, it devalues your brand, and, in this case, it will hurt any future investment they try to procure.

  • AshleyWeinhandl

    AlessandraNPR Completely agree. This is something their team should have known if they knew anything about PR & Coms 101.

  • Holy cow! Would you believe that I know her? Early in 2012 she sent guest posts in for one of my parenting sites! She was like every other person trying to make her company succeed and at that time, was doing all the right things. I had not heard of this fiasco. Sad that this may be how they go out.  But SEE! It goes back to my FB?OTW and ethics! You’re not going to convince me to do something unethical just to suit your needs.

    • @KristenDaukas Based on everything I’ve read about her and the company, I don’t think she’s a bad person. I don’t even think she’s an unethical person. I think she just made a mistake and didn’t consult a communications expert to help her think through any repercussions of creating a fake winner.

  • belllindsay

    My gut tells me they were doing this as a hoax from day one. Your number 4 is great advice when and if a content doesn’t get any entries. That said, I feel they set out to actually do it this way – and entries or no entries, Natasha Hill was going to be the winner. Wrong wrong wrong.

    • @belllindsay They did actually hold a contest. It was a real contest. But no one entered. So they decided to make up a winner. Based on everything I’ve read, I really don’t think they did it maliciously. In fact, I can totally see how it happens. We’ve had clients ask us in the past if they can decide who wins something, based on a certain criteria. Um, no. But people just don’t know unless someone tells them. And this founder has been told… by the entire media world.

      • @ginidietrich @belllindsay I entered a contest for small businesses once where we received free video advertising. It was a random draw, but they took the fishbowl behind closed doors and “drew” the winner. Puhleeze. It infuriated everyone because the winner was a big business they were openly courting.

        • @jolynndeal  That happens all the time unfortunately. It just leaves a really bad taste in their prospects mouths.

        • belllindsay

          @ginidietrich  @jolynndeal Still. Beyond dumb. And I’m still dubious.

  • I had a troll haunting my blog recently but the poor sap was unaware that my stats showed the name of the company they were coming from and a host of other useful information.
    Aggravate the Internet and you invite way too much trouble.

    • @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes That totally makes my day! LOL!! People.

  • SpinSucks

    KatieMHutton I’m still not sure why people think the CAN control the situation. Thanks for sharing Katie!

    • KatieMHutton

      SpinSucks Agreed! So many examples of failed control attempts. Nature of #socialmedia is that it’s immediate, interactive & uncontrollable.

      • SpinSucks

        KatieMHutton Preach!!

  • SpinSucks

    SuzanneVara Thanks for sharing Suzanne!!

    • SuzanneVara

      SpinSucks great article and POV. Very enjoyable read

  • SpinSucks

    debdobson Thanks for sharing Deb!!

  • SpinSucks

    AlessandraNPR Agreed!! Thanks for sharing Alessandra 🙂

  • HowieG

    I just shared this with a client.
    Dear World. I am thankful for the stupid people who keep these case studies rolling in! Keep up the shoddy work!

    • @HowieG It’s giving me great fodder for an entire book!

  • What advice would I give? An apology–a sincere one from the founder–would be a good start. Then, as Ken mentioned, move forward. As far as names, my son was Baby Boy Cleary for a couple days, but he didn’t mind.

    • @Word Ninja I’m calling my unborn niece Artichoke right now. The name may stick after she’s born.

      • @ginidietrich  @Word Ninja  I was ‘bambino’ for several weeks because my parents couldn’t agree what to name me! They seriously had arguments based on what names would like certain vegetables. I was almost Elizabeth but my father was certain that an Elizabeth would not like Broccoli and it was very important that I like broccoli (which….I do!)

        • @LauraPetrolino  @ginidietrich  Laura, your parents had much more interesting arguments than I did with son’s father. He just liked boring names. Gini, Artichoke? You bet it will stick. Just ask Baby Boy Cleary’s sister Mac ‘n Cheese.

        • Keena Lykins

          @LauraPetrolino  @ginidietrich  @Word NinjaDad wanted to name me Sissy Marie. Mom said that sounded like a cow’s name. She wanted a girl named Keena since she was young. She even named my older brother Kevin so it would be a K name to go with Keena.

        • @Keena Lykins  I’m kind of with your mom.

        • @Keena Lykins  @ginidietrich  @Word Ninja That is definitely a cow’s name! 
          I love these stories. I need to add this to the ever increasing list of books I need to write: Namesake: The good, the bad and the absurd stories of how our names chose us

  • I’m a firm believer that ‘excuses’ are just lies you tell yourself in order to justify poor actions or inactions. Excuses help people convince themselves they should not be held accountable.  So the excuse, ‘we are a start-up’ or ‘we don’t have the budget’, etc. just don’t fly. This also really should not be something that you need a communications professional to tell you is wrong or not a good idea. It is just common sense.
    Social gives start-ups an amazing ability to take a place on the stage, build a strong brand and foster a passionate community and advocate base. It also gives them an amazing ability to shoot themselves in the foot, as seen here. But in the end common sense is common sense, so is knowing the difference between right and wrong. The great thing about social is that it is a magnifier of EVERYTHING. If karma sucks, digital karma is like blackhole, vortex caliber suckage. 
    Sadly we live in a society that has been ‘McDonaldized’ to want things fast and easy. A quick fix diet pill vs. exercise, healthy eating and lifestyle change, There are also way too many ‘internet marketing’ scammers out there trying to get people to believe that social will allow them to be overnight, viral divas with nothing but a tweet and a Facebook contest. And so unfortunately people not only start to believe it, they start to expect it and when it doesn’t happen it seems normally rational people often make irrational, shortsighted decisions because they’ve read too much of the wrong internet marketing advice from loud infomercial-esque sales pages with blinking lights and ‘don’t leave this page or you are throwing away your chance at success pop-ups’. 
    I work with a lot of start ups and start up founders/leaders and one thing you find in many is a extremely parental type affection for their organization, that often makes it even more tempting for them to make irrational decisions when they fear their child isn’t excelling in the manner it should. Sort of like Soccer Mom’s gone wild. I’m guessing this is what happened to hopefully well meaning Lacey. 
    Ok..whew..that was more of a rant than I originally intended. But I agree with others, apologize, move forward and start slowly but firmly attempting to rebuild a foundation of trust, focus on your community, on those your product is helping. How can you help them more, what can you do to deserve their trust again. The Mommy demographic definitely has some key characteristics that can be focused on to do so and turn this situation around.
    And now we’ve reached the end of my accidental novella. A clift notes version will be coming out on kindle soon.

    • @LauraPetrolino
       Generally speaking – wouldn’t you say ‘apologies’ fall in the same catagory as ‘excuses’?

      • @jdrobertson for some, unfortunately yes….but it shouldn’t be and definitely isn’t always

    • @LauraPetrolino It really sucks you have nothing to say on the topic. Try to show some enthusiasm, will you?

      • @ginidietrich yes, yes, I’ll try. I do apologize for my indifferent and reserved nature.

  • You cannot unring the bell!

  • SpinSucks

    Andrea_Judith Thanks for sharing Andrea!

    • Andrea_Judith

      SpinSucks My pleasure! Thanks for providing such great content!

  • SpinSucks

    Frank_Strong Thank youuuuuuuuuu!!!

    • Frank_Strong

      SpinSucks Yes, Ma’am.

  • SpinSucks

    howiegoldfarb 🙂 Thank youuuuuu!!!!

  • this reminds me of something I saw at sxsw, and would love to know your thoughts. A dessert company used a fake protest to get publicity.  I walked over because I thought they had something interesting to protest. People were holding up signs, chanting, and screaming at the top their lungs that bananas should be…a dessert. yes, really. I was horrified when I realized the protest was just a marketing ploy.  
    maybe I take my dessert too seriously. maybe I need to lighten up. but I mean, really… what’s dessert without chocolate? and who are they trying to fool?

    • @itsjessicann Humans appreciate when other humans connect in a thoughtful and honest way. This doesn’t preempt satire, but when you blur the line it gets very very tricky. It is not pleasant when you feel the joke is on you in some way, and brands usually pay the price for doing so.
      And dessert w/o chocolate? That’s like going to a GnR concert and not hearing Welcome to the Jungle. Refund time.

    • @itsjessicann Do you watch Mad Men? There was an episode where they faked a fight over ham to get people excited to buy that particular brand for their holiday meals. The tactic is an old one and I suppose it used to work, but I prefer to see things done in an ethical way. Like you, I would be disappointed to know it was a fake protest and, like @JoeCardillo says, it’s not pleasant when the customer feels like the joke is on them.

      • @ginidietrich  @JoeCardillo love Mad Men and totally remember that episode!

  • Keena Lykins

    The second greatest lie is “It’s under control.” It’s never under control.

    • PattiRoseKnight

      @Keena Lykins you got that right….it is never under control.  And, always expect the unexpected.

    • @Keena Lykins There is a chapter in Spin Sucks about that very thing: You don’t have control of your brand, people!

  • ginidietrich

    halleyrebecca Thanks Halley!

    • halleyrebecca

      ginidietrich I often want to dismiss crazy campaigns like that as immaturity/inexperience … but sometimes just bad ideas!

      • ginidietrich

        halleyrebecca I think this one was inexperience…and a desire to make news

  • @PattiRoseKnight LOL!! I can’t believe today is the day!

    • belllindsay

      @ginidietrich  @PattiRoseKnight It’s 2013. 🙂

      • PattiRoseKnight

        @belllindsay really?

      • belllindsay

        @PattiRoseKnight I hope so. Or I’m in some weird time/space warp! LOL

      • PattiRoseKnight

        @belllindsay  can you teach me how to be perfect too?

      • belllindsay

        @PattiRoseKnight Oh dear god, I couldn’t be FURTHER from perfect! I’m the person who lost their send button, remember?? LOL

  • I love this —-> “you’ve never been in control; you just had the perception of being so because no one could talk back.” It’s amazing how many companies are still struggling to accept this concept.
    There are ramifications to everything you do, but this is a HUGE plus if you conduct your business in the same fashion that you treat your friends. I may be old school, but good manners, integrity and hard work are still the best ways to proceed. Do we all wish that our first contests or our first webinars were slam-dunk successes? You bet! What do you do with a contest with no entries? You extend the date — due to the level of interest in the contest, you’ve decided to extend the deadline one more month. (Of course, you don’t have to admit that the “level of interest” is zero….LOL)

    • @TaraGeissinger So true. And it IS amazing about control, so many companies seem to be determined to wait until they have a 50 egg omelette on their face (Nestle, Applebees, etc…) before rethinking how they communicate.

  • ginidietrich

    AnnikaMollstrom I hope it was helpful Annika!

  • SpinSucks

    919Marketing Nothing does beat hard work. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Nevae7apt2xm3f
  • Belly Ballot is an interesting company and concept. I even checked out the website. Transparency is always important. Trying to rig a contest or present a fake idea is wrong and unethical. For Belly Ballot to be a kickstart it’s as if they put themselves behind with this fake contestant before they even really started. Like you mentioned people will discover the truth no matter what. They should have just started small, building their brand step by step like other small businesses. It may be difficult for people to trust them moving forward because of the fallout. I think it’s important to understand if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work so go back to the drawing board. In the long run, a company contest that fails is better than a fake contest.

    • pmccorkl You’ve been reading a lot of Spin Sucks in the past day!

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