Serenity Now. Tranquility Later. (One Small Step for a Brand, Part II)

Here we continue the thread from my previous post. In honour of the Apollo 11 mission’s 40th anniversary, we are looking at advertising/entertainment/branding issues we may not have expected to arise – from space exploration. This installment: contest bootcamp. Prepare for a hijacking.

Part II. Serenity Now. Tranquility Later.

A name has been chosen for Node 3 of the International Space Station. Node 3 is a pressurized module that will house many of ISS’ life support systems, and has an attached “cupola” work station with six windows that will provide a view of Earth and the station’s robotic arm. Thanks to over a million reponses to NASA’s “Help Name Node 3” online contest in spring 2009, the module will be named “Tranquility.” “Tranquility” was among the top 10 of voter-suggested names. 1,190,437 users voted or submitted a name. The final voting results showed that the name “Serenity” received 70% of the final vote among the four NASA-suggested names (Serenity, Earthrise, Legacy and Venture). In fact, “Serenity” was the second place name after the overall vote, according to the Associated Press. The first place choice based on voting was: “Colbert.”

Enter comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the Comedy Central television show The Colbert Report. He encouraged a grassroots campaign for viewers to vote with the option to write-in their own name suggestion: namely, Colbert. NASA’s intention was that the new name should reflect the spirit of exploration and cooperation embodied by the space station and follow in the tradition set by Node 1, named “Unity,” and Node 2, named “Harmony.” The NASA-suggested name “Serenity” was reportedly a nod to the name of the spaceship in Whedon’s sci-fi television series, Firefly. At the close of the vote, Colbert’s fans prevailed by a landslide. “Colbert” won 230,539 votes. “Serenity” was 40,000 votes behind. How many votes did “Tranquility” receive? Who knows.

Faster than a speeding space toilet – or treadmill.

NASA had an escape clause. The contest rules provided that NASA would consider the voting, but reserved the right to select a name at its discretion based on its own needs and considerations, including a name which might not be on the list of voted-on candidate names. Nevertheless, NASA was faced with a public relations issue. It was also reported that Democrat U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania called on NASA to do the democratic thing and use the name that drew the most votes. Fattah stated “The people have spoken, and Stephen Colbert won it fair and square — even if his campaign was a bit over the top.”

Fortunately, NASA had a plan. Rumours were reported that NASA might agree to name a small but vital part of the station after Colbert: the space toilet. NASA spokesman John Yembrick refused to confirm the rumours, stating that the although the highest-voted names were receiving the most consideration, “as for the toilet rumor, we don’t want to flush away any goodwill by announcing something before we are ready.” Within a few weeks after the close of the contest, NASA announced the new name for Node 3 on The Colbert Report show. The new name for Node 3 would be “Tranquility.” However, NASA gave Stephen Colbert a consolation honour: it would name the astronauts’ new ISS treadmill, COLBERT (an acronym for: Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill). Perhaps it helped minimize public relations drama that there was no expectation on the part of voting participants of receiving a prize – this had been stipulated at the outset in the contest rules. What ended up being the name of the space toilet? Who knows.

In this space age of viral campaigns, popular online social media and contests with user participation, it pays to be reminded: when reaching out to the public with a contest, expect the unexpected, and be prepared for a hijacking.

Stay tuned for the next installment: I Want My NASA TV.

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