Boaty McBoatface debacle shows the perils of crowdsourcing opinion: From Hooty McOwlface to Mr Splashy Pants

When a poll suggested that a new ship be called 'Boaty McBoatface', it was just the latest strike in the risky business of 'ask the public' PR.

It wasn't necessarily a silly question, but in a nation of bored people genetically programmed to take the piss, it was perhaps predictable that it might invite a silly answer. So it was that a nice idea became a global public relations headache when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked: “What shall we call our fancy new boat?”

At the time of writing, the website built by the science body to host the competition to name its £200m polar research vessel had sunk without a trace, inundated as it was with votes for Boaty McBoatface, the submission of a former local radio presenter. As America may yet learn, democracy can be a risky way to get things done.

“I read the list of entries and there were about 3,000 at the time,” James Hand, a communications executive, told an old colleague at BBC Radio Jersey on Monday. “Some of them were really, really funny. Clifford the Big Red Boat was my favourite. So I thought I'd throw one into the ring to see what happens. It got a few likes and I thought nothing of it.”

By Sunday, when the website crashed, almost 30,000 people had voted for Boaty McBoatface, and on Monday the social media fallout served as a fitting tribute to Twitter, the home of dumb diversions, on its tenth birthday.

“It's been quite a strange weekend,” Hand added, while revealing that he had apologised to NERC for inadvertently scuttling its contest. But there were no hard feelings at the other end. “The final decision will be made by NERC and the poll is to generate interest,” a spokesperson told The Independent. “That worked!”

Boaty McBoatface could be the name of this ship

Inevitably, when the poll closes on 16 April (if the website surfaces again), Boaty McBoatface will be rejected by committee in favour of a more sensible alternative. Hand himself subsequently voted for David Attenborough. When that happens, it will be a kick in the face for democracy – and a lesson for press offices in the sometimes perilous potential of public brainstorming.

To its credit, a zoo in Tasmania stayed true to its word when it allowed a local primary school to sponsor – and name – its star emu. A sign on the giant bird's enclosure introduces it as Spazzy McGee. Less is known about the owl enclosure that went viral in 2013 when a photo showed that one of its birds had been adopted and named by Lee Dixon. It was: Hooty McOwlface. The ex-Arsenal footballer of the same name (Lee Dixon) initially denied any involvement but later, either in a fit of honesty or an attempt to kill the story, he tweeted: “Ok ok it was me. I named Hooty! I was trying to keep it quiet. Now please just let it go. Blinding name though!”

Greenpeace also followed through in 2007, when shortlisted names for a migrating humpback whale it wanted to track to the Southern Ocean included Aiko, Mira, Kaimana and Aurora. But almost 80 per cent of votes went to Mr Splashy Pants. 

The example became a case study in the early days of social media marketing. In 2009, Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, gave a TED Talk about the whale called “How to make a splash in social media”. On the web, he said, “you lose control over your message − and that's OK”. But not if you're Waitrose, who was asking for trouble in 2012 when it invited customers on Twitter to complete the line “I shop at Waitrose because …” using the hashtag “#WaitroseReasons”. Submissions recorded before the supermarket swiftly checked out included: “...because Tesco Value quinoa gives my son Tarquin a nasty rash”; “because my butler's on holiday”; and, in reference to its charity boxes: “because when the economy finally breaks down and dies, those little green tokens will serve as currency”.

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