In March of this year, the Natural Environment Research Council launched the #nameourship campaign in order to name their new research vessel. The methodology was simple; submit your suggestion and it, along with every other suggestion would be put in a web poll to be voted on by the Great British public. Of course, for anyone who’s ever actually been on the internet, you can probably guess what happened next. Among the top suggestions were the likes of “I like big boats & I cannot lie”, “Clifford the big red boat” and the eventual winner, “RRS Boaty McBoatface”. Despite this, on Friday 6th May 2016 it was announced that a panel of experts had chosen the decidedly more mundane “RRS David Attenborough”.
The internet was typically outraged, with the poll being called a farce and a failure of democracy. There were even calls for David Attenborough himself to change his name to Boaty McBoatface in protest, but the truth is it was probably the right decision. Science minister Jo Johnson himself said “you won’t be surprised to know that we want something that fits the mission and captures the spirit of scientific endeavour”, and honouring esteemed British broadcaster and naturalist (though apparently not naturist) David Attenborough certainly fits the bill.
Actually, when we asked the general public whether they felt justice had been served, most admitted that they agreed with the decision to name the vessel David Attenborough. So why was there such a disconnect between the sensible answer that most people were ultimately satisfied with, and the actual winner of the poll? The answer could be as simple as the methodology.
A big part of being a good market researcher is understanding that any methodology has to be carefully designed to match your research objectives, but also that you really have to navigate any potential pitfalls from respondents not taking things seriously. By letting the general public submit any and every idea they have, you’re essentially letting them design the survey. A bit of background research might also have highlighted previous winners of similarly unrestricted polls: a humpback whale named “Mr. Splashypants” by a 2012 Greenpeace poll, and an Emu sponsored by Havenview Primary School with the rather fitting name “Spazzie McGee”.
In many ways it was unlucky that the vote spiralled out of control, and yet it highlights that even such as a simple question as “what should we name our boat/whale/emu?” needs careful design and consideration. Unless you’re okay with having a £200m boat named “Get Your Boat, You’ve Pulled”, in which case you’re basically fine doing whatever.