Last February I held a Pets Amore Love Story Contest to promote my pet portraiture business, Van Gogh My Pet. For months following, my aunt Liz hounded me to submit the tale to This American Life. What follows is the pitch that Will and I put together, that both my father and my aunt found sub-par, and that we submitted anyway. Seriously, the two of us could spend years on just about any project…if we had it.
And..without any further ado…the pitch for This American Life:
Jennifer Heller is an artist and web designer in Oakland, California. In February she decided to use Valentine’s Day to promote one of her business projects, VanGoghMyPet.com. This is a business where Jennifer paints portraits of people’s cats and dogs, rendering them in the approximate style of Vincent Van Gogh. On the website Jennifer announced a contest: pet owners could submit their “pet love stories,” and viewers of the site would vote on which submitted story was the best. The pet owner voted best would win a free, original portrait of his or her pet.
Jennifer hoped that this contest would bring more attention to her website. She had no idea what was in store.
Thirteen pet owners submitted stories: pets ranged from dogs and cats to angelfish, a stuffed Yorkshire Terrier, and a horse. The voting was to last just five days–Monday through Friday, and each IP address was allowed one vote per hour.
One entry quickly pulled ahead, a horse named Weekend. The young woman who owned Weekend, Kayla, mobilized her large family to vote for her story. Her family viewed the contest with particular poignancy, because the horse she had been wanting her whole life had been a consolation after the painful passing of her father.
Kayla’s supportive family voted heavily: Kayla’s elderly grandmother slept with a laptop by the bed and set an alarm to wake hourly during the night. Family and friends as far away as Canada, Arizona, and Florida took part in the voting. Weekend’s love story on the website accrued regular comments from her supporters gushing with love and support.
Though he had a strong lead, Weekend was not without competition. A few of the other pet owners were putting up a good fight. Two coworkers at the office where Jennifer’s mother works had entered the contest. Among them was the mother of a girl and her Chihuahua, Libby. Jennifer recalls, “Throughout the week, I got phone calls every hour from my mom reporting what was happening at the office. The contest was a constant topic of conversation. My mom felt really sorry for the losing entries, and called me to say she voted for the underdogs, or why she thought that the Angelfish story was really the best written. I don’t think either of us got much work done; all we did was watch the voting.”
Late Wednesday, one of the other entries began to claw at Weekend’s lead, a story about a feline named Fence Cat. In contrast to most of the submissions, which told of the owners’ love for their pets, the Fence Cat story professed no such love, but told of an amorous liaison between Fence Cat and another cat. In contrast to Kayla and her emotional connection to her horse, the contestants who submitted the Fence Cat story were not even the animal’s owners: Fence Cat was a stray who lounged about on their property, and they viewed him with a sort of detached respect and bemusement. In contrast to the suburbanites voting for Weekend, Fence Cat’s hosts were residents of Oakland, recent graduates of UC Berkeley and still very much part of the student counterculture. It appeared for the first stretch of the contest that their feckless hipsterism would win them some laughs but fail in the face of Weekend’s mobilized effort. But they had a surprise up their sleeves.
As the weekend neared when the vote count was to wind down, the Fence Cat contestants whipped up their own voter mobilization scheme. They began having parties for students and recent graduates, giving them beer to sit around and vote, hour after hour, for Fence Cat . They formed a group on Facebook called “1000 Strong for Fence Cat.” Jennifer was surprised to see votes for Fence Cat mount swiftly, to the point where it appeared that Fence Cat had a chance of catching up with Weekend.
As this change became apparent, Fence Cat’s hosts redoubled their efforts, bringing in even more people. Weekend’s supporters had already maximized the productiveness of their voting, and so they could do nothing to meet their rival’s challenge. Realizing that they stood to be overtaken, they became bitter about the possibility that their effort would be wasted. This demoralization was not helped by the rudeness of some of Fence Cat’s friends. A Fence Cat partisan, Ken, commented on Weekend’s love story under a pseudonym, declaring himself “an ardent Marxist,” and suggested that anyone who owned a horse was “bourgeois scum.” Kayla and her family members did not have thick skins when it came to such internet rudeness. Jennifer was left fretting, trying to placate the wronged parties and to keep the other parties on best behavior. She urged all contestants to “stay positive” and began monitoring the comments sections obsessively to prevent name-calling. She found this task to be a new headache, as some comments struck her as humorous but were taken by contestants to be hurtful. Jennifer could not believe what a Pandora’s box her Valentine’s Day contest had become! The contest had taken on a life of its own!
The contest was scheduled to end at 12:00 am Pacific Standard Time on Friday, February 12, 2010. At 9:11 pm that fateful day, Fence Cat took the lead, surpassing Weekend’s impressive 800 and some votes. Liz, who submitted the story of Fence Cat, mistakenly commented on Weekend’s story under the pseudonym Judy, “FENCE CAT takes the lead!!!! Love you Fence Cat 1,000 by midnight!”
Liz immediately posted again to apologize and explain that she meant to post that on Fence Cat’s story, but the damage was done. Weekend’s supporters, still glued to their computers, took it personally, and geographically, somehow interpreting the many comments to be directed against the city of Tracy, where Weekend and Kayla reside. Weekend supporter Ken Houzzier posted, hyperbolically, “As a candidate for Tracy’s city council, I fully support an investigation into said rude and shady actions. I promise that the killers will be brought to justice.”
Demoralized by Fence Cat’s recent lead, Kayla posted on Facebook that everyone should give up, and texted Jennifer to let her know. Weekend’s supporters largely threw in the towel. Some felt used and angry. The comments got worse. A saddened Jennifer began to realize that a week of pure fun had turned into a horrible PR debacle when someone named Cheryl commented on Weekend’s story, “Sorry, Kayla, that some people had to be rude and shady. I can’t wait to hear EXACTLY what went down. I’m sure there’s A LOT of people interested in this company and their true intentions.”
Jennifer tried to bolster the spirits of Weekends supporters and restrain the enthusiasm of the Fence Cat team. At one point the idealistic young artist even phoned the authors of the Fence Cat love story and asked above the din of their voting party if they could have their friends vote half the time for Weekend. Unsurprisingly, her plea went unanswered. Fence Cat won a robust victory, and Jennifer promptly made a Van-Gogh-style painting of the amorous cat for the ecstatic winner.
Jennifer no longer utilizes competitive contests for promotion having acutely learned a tough lesson: the passions of people who love animals are not to be toyed with.