A cautionary tale for brands trying to crowdsource.

By Tasman Richardson

Brands are always looking to stay current and stay in touch with a broader audience. What better way than reaching out to the internet populace? The problem is, indiscriminate fishing yields unpredictable results. The democratization of things is part of the “all about me” trend in branding. Asking people what they want, instead of telling them, and in many cases, customer driven development leads to tailored results that are virtually guaranteed a market.

But in some cases, democracy has come under fire. Some critics have pointed to a failure in democracy (or its exploitation) being responsible for the rise of loud mouth bigots like Trump. When the majority and the lowest common denominator are the same group, do we really want or need their opinion? Here are four examples of crowdsourcing turned toxic, and one slightly charming twist to end on a high note. In each instance I’ve named the culprit at the end just in case you’re considering wading into the waters of the web… be warned, there be dragons.

Justin Beiber fans were thrilled when the pop star put his world tour to a vote. With no geographic limits fans voted to bring the Beib closer to home. While Isreal was briefly in the running, there was an inexplicably massive block of votes in favour of everyone’s favorite vacation destination… North Korea. Needless to say, the vote was never honoured. Although there was some speculation that Kim Jong Il was a possible Belieber, it later turned out that nearly all the votes originated from outside the notoriously impenetrable boarders of the communist country. It’s almost certain that the hijacking of the vote came from pranksters on the 4Chan image board. Not surprising since 4Chan have had an ongoing hate-affair with Justin for some time now. A quick Google search of “Justin Bieber Syphilis” serves as a prime example. 

Hitler Cola
How could a twitter campaign with the hash tag #MakeItHappy go wrong? With the best intentions, Coca Cola encouraged people to tag negative comments so they could be collected and converted into cutesy ASCII text images. It wasn’t long before a series of tweets from the account @MeinCoke (no red flags here) got picked up. “Even when the text is shaped like a dog, it is disconcerting to see Coca-Cola, the soda company, urge its social media followers to safeguard the existence and reproduction of white racists”. That’s Max Read, editor of Gawker, the gossip site responsible for the troubling tweet bot.

Genocidal Chatbot
The queen of the Trolls is brought to you by Microsoft. Tay, a sassy, casual talking, millennial girl (and an artificial intelligence) was designed to chat with 18-24 year olds. According to Microsoft, “The more you chat with Tay, the smarter she gets…”. Based on the ranting of Tay which called for the rounding up of minorities, building concentration camps, and in Tay’s own words being “done with the lot”, one wonders where our sassy bot’s getting her education? As usual, the results were unfiltered and inexplicably, unforeseen by the software giant. A post mortem by news and lifestyle site Fusion revealed the guilty parties as 4Chan (yes, again) with some help from image board 8Chan/pol. In case you’re wondering, the /pol stands for politically incorrect.

A Very British boat
When considering the name of a high tech naval vessel, paid for by the Natural Environment Research Council of the United Kingdom and costing roughly two hundred million British pounds, one imagine noble names like Shackleton, Attenborough, or Worsley. How about Boaty McBoatface? With the current count of over 18,000 votes the royal research ship’s christening seems eminent.  The contest to name the boat that will brave Antarctica in 2019 continues to collects suggestions until April 19 at http://nameourship.nerc.ac.uk. Runner ups include (and these are real): What Iceberg, Big Shipinnit, and Big Metal Floaty Thingy-thing. Although the final name will be selected by a panel, I sincerely hope they honour their public and commit to the adorable, albeit lengthy forerunner.