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Gini Dietrich

Belly Ballot Hoax: Communication Gone Wrong

By: Gini Dietrich | March 26, 2013 | 
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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, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

74 comments
pmccorkl
pmccorkl

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. 

TaraGeissinger
TaraGeissinger

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)

Keena Lykins
Keena Lykins

The second greatest lie is "It's under control." It's never under control.

jessica ann
jessica ann

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? 

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

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. 

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

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.

 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

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!

SpinSucks
SpinSucks

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

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

 @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.

halleyrebecca
halleyrebecca

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @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.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

 @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.

 

 

KatieMHutton
KatieMHutton

%s Agreed! So many examples of failed control attempts. Nature of %s is that it's immediate, interactive & uncontrollable.

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

 @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!)

belllindsay
belllindsay

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

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

 @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

Keena Lykins
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. 

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

 @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.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Gini Dietrich at Spin Sucks has already written a spot-on piece about Belly Ballot’s PR and reputation management mistakes. Go read it – it’s fabulous. […]