April 19, 2016 by Amy
The lesson of Boaty McBoatface
I received three bits of disturbing news today. My best friend from 7th grade is back in the hospital with a headache from hell that will not go away, my dad had to have some testing done for a potential health issue, and the U.K.’s science minister announced that despite overwhelming polls to the contrary, he will most likely not allow the country’s new research vessel to be named Boaty McBoatface.
Let’s dig into that last one, shall we?
The National Environment Research Council (NERC) in Britain conducted an online poll to name their new $300 million research ship, due to launch in 2019. They accepted nominations from everyone. After Englishman James Hand jokingly suggested Boaty McBoatface, the internet did what it’s best at and pandemonium ensued. Thousands, then tens of thousands, then over a hundred thousand people voted, and Boaty McBoatface won in a landslide. It received 120,000 votes, four times the number of the next entry. There were so many voters that at one point the site crashed.
This, my friends, is awesome, and a great lesson in “How to ask a question so you get the answer you want.” Also known as, “That time an open-ended, online poll bit me in the rear end.” Someone at NERC was asleep at the wheel when this promotion was launched. Or NERC decided that no one knows what the heck they do anyway and so only nerds geeking out on oceanic exploration would bother to nominate names, and only names of worthy deceased explorers or forgotten politicians who supported exploration or other Important People no one has heard of. Regardless, the outcome is not what they wanted.
My guess is, as the numbers started ticking up and Boaty McBoatface took off in a run-away landslide blowout of epic proportions, the NERC folks started breathing in paper bags. “No no no, Nigel! This is not how it was supposed to go!”
That’s the way it went, though, and then the internets did what it’s second-best at and the story went viral. I’m generally not the most plugged-in kind of person (yet another sign of my advancing age…darn whippersnappers) and even I knew about it. So that unequivocally means it went viral. The more I read about Boaty McBoatface, the more I laughed. In fact, I pretty much haven’t stopped laughing about it since I first read the words “Boaty McBoatface.” I mean, c’mon. That’s just funny. I told M about it last night and he started laughing, and then promptly texted the Brit who works for him and gave him nine kinds of hell. Richard’s response was something along the lines of “I’ll take Boaty McBoatface shenanigans over Trump any day. Wanker.”
And then today I read that the science minister (which is a cool title, I’ll give him that) announced that Boaty McBoatface is in fact most certainly not funny and that no, NERC will most likely not be naming their hoity-toity research ship that and will indeed select a most proper name. All delivered, I’m sure, in a snotty British accent. (He’s British, after all, so that’s to be expected.)
He’s quoted as saying, “I think we were clear when launching the competition that we were looking for a name that would be in keeping with the mission.” He then sniffed with disdain.
I think he’s making a mistake. I mean, sure, the poll didn’t go the way they planned. It went way better. This is a public relations dream. I’m going to hazard a guess that the vast majority of people who voted for Boaty McBoatface hadn’t even heard of NERC and their mission before this poll. And if they had, they didn’t give a rip. Boaty McBoatface gave them a reason to invest, to be involved, to care. And care they did, in record numbers.
If NERC had a PR professional worth her salt (like, you know, if they had me), they’d be full steam ahead with naming their ship in accordance with what the people want. Think of the fan base they would engender. So many people would follow the adventures of Boaty McBoatface way more than they’d ever pay attention to what’s happening on the HMS Simon Smythingtonshireham. The marketing opportunities are endless. The educational potential – enchanting children on a level that appeals to them – blows my mind. This is the chance for NERC to really engage the public on polar research and climate change. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s world in Kansas is in sepia and then she steps through her tornado-blown doorway into a Technicolor world. Who wants to view vibrant marine life in black and white?
Science minister Johnson instead said, “You want a name that fits the gravity and the importance of the subjects that this boat is going to be doing science into.” Seriously, this man should not be allowed to talk to reporters, much less make boat-naming decisions, but I digress.
I posit that there is too much gravity in this world. There are too many serious subjects, and after awhile, most people tune them out despite their importance. The sheer volume of data flying in our faces means that unless it’s catchy or super-intriguing, it’s gonna be gone without a second thought in moments. If it even lasts that long.
My recommendation, as a PR professional, would be to keep “Boaty McBoatface.” Exploit it. Use it to your advantage and leverage the heck out of it. Match the quirky moniker with real education, good information, facts about our planet. Make science actually fun and appealing. Sneak in some learnin’ while people are having a good time.
My prediction, as a PR professional, is that “propriety” will rule. The ship will be named something no one will remember, and it’ll steam off to do its work in boring ambiguity without fanfare, without good press, and without the interest of anyone not actually on the boat.
As for me, after years of wondering what I’d name my boat if I ever got one, well, I think I know my answer.