A group of local corporations partnered with community leaders to create a contest called “My GR 6.” The contest awards acclaim (in the form of billboard space) and prizes to whomever comes up with the best six words that describe the city of Grand Rapids (according to a panel of judges that aren’t yet disclosed).
While it’s great to see any effort to foster community pride and raise the profile of my home city, I do have some issues with how it’s being accomplished. Here are a few of my concerns:
1. It’s been done.
- Six Word Memoirs | Smith Magazine
- Say it All in Six Words | The New Yorker
- Very Short Stories | Wired Magazine
- Not Quite What I Was Planning | Book by Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith (based on Hemmingway’s book)
- Share Six Words About Your Mother | New York Times
- The Year in Six Words | UTS Business
- Six Word Stories | SixWordStories.net
- Six Word Careers Contest | Encore Careers
If Grand Rapids truly wants to distinguish itself, it’s going to have to get past this tendency we have to glom onto whatever trend is happening and localize it. C’mon people – I know we can do better.
2. It’s led by Amway.
Personal opinions of Amway and its owners (both for/against) aside – does it really help expand the image of Grand Rapids to have this contest run by the company that is already the lazy comedic shorthand default for referring to the city? Already, entries are being submitted referencing the multi-level marketing giant. The company’s involvement appears to have already attracted the attention of the population of Amway-hating trolls (term used not as a pejorative – rather as a descriptor of the behavior) who are fairly populous on the web.
3. The entries are judged by “Grand Rapids business and community leaders.”
So … no regular citizens? No kids? No students? The panel hasn’t been named yet, but those weren’t any of the groups of people named to be included. The fine print of the entry form states:
All entries will be judged weekly as entries are submitted based on the following judging criteria all with equal value (“Judging Panel Criteria”):
The Judging Panel will select semifinalists (each a “semifinalist”) based on the Judging Panel Criteria. The semifinalists’ entries will be presented to a final judging panel made of individuals from local media, government, education, business and cultural leaders (“Final Judging Panel”). The Final Judging Panel will select six (6) winners from the semifinalists on or about October 10, 2011.
4. The judging criteria and censorship.
Again, the small print of the entry form states:
“Sponsor and judges reserve the right, in their sole and absolute discretion, to disqualify and reject any entries that are inappropriate for any reason, including without limitation, for containing profane or inappropriate language.”
As one entrant has already noted, the submission form automatically bans the words “pyramid” and “scheme” separately or together (which the form describes as “naughty” words).
This comes at a time when the popular new concert venue/bar is called “the Pyramid Scheme.” Moreover one could also envision a lot of clever ways to positively describe the city using those words and poking fun at “pyramid schemes” to help the city transcend that misperception.
Amway isn’t doing itself (or the city) any favors by highlighting the primary criticism of the company in this way. When “the Daily Show” and “the Colbert Report” are primary ways a sizable chunk of the public gets its news, taking oneself too seriously is a prescription for failure.
To its credit, the organizers haven’t taken down any of the negative contributions as far as I’m aware (…yet).
5. It will reinforce insularity at a time when understanding others perceptions of us is more important (and relevant).
No organization controls its brand; in fact – customers and outsiders have far more say over brand identity than any organization does. This is an empirical reality reinforced daily by social media. The problem is that the entries are censored, and the winners are invariably going to be enthusiastic and straight-laced.
Understanding the shortcomings of the city would be helpful at a time when West Michigan leaders are struggling to retain the young creative population as exemplified by a recent panel (“How can we grow a creative class in West Michigan? Holland, Grand Rapids and Norton Shores mayors to grapple with issue in free seminar” | Grand Rapids Press)
Of the 483 entries at the time of this post, seven percent (32) were decidedly negative, and hinted at some of the perceptual shortcomings and cultural facets of the city. They ranged from societal criticisms to political statements. Some were outright derisive, but others gently poked fun at the foibles of the city. Among them:
- “Stuck on reputation Ignores the realities.” | – Paula S., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Be like us…resistance is futile.” | – Locutus B., Grand Rapids, Michigan [props for the Star Trek reference]
- “Like Mormons, but with normal underwear.” | – Straitup N., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “19th century mindset, 20th century policies” | – Stu J., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Amway censors “PIRAMID” & “SKEME” spelled correctly.” | – Julian A., Santibáñez de Esgueva, Castille and Leon
- “Recruit friends to recruit friends to…” | – DutchMafia I., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Billions for corporations, zero for education.” | – Louisa K., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Ridiculously naive laughingstock of the nation.” | – Quaker H., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Grand Rapids. Both words are lies.” | – Pinocchio G., Kalamazoo, Michigan
- “Planning ahead is not our strong” | – Blindinone I., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Where ‘adventure’ means an ethnic restaurant.” | – Jim V., Comstock Park, Michigan
- “Penny wise, pound foolish = missed opportunities.” | – Khudda B., Comstock Park, Michigan
- “Where Dutch white men run everything.” | – Nijer P., Jilotlán de los Dolores, Jalisco
- “Always twenty years behind the times.” | – Eusta L., Jilotlán de los Dolores, Jalisco
- “Not far enough away from Holland.” | – Paul S., Holland, Michigan
- “pretty cool place, way too conservative” | – tom d., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “high taxes hurt my wallet badly” | – linda b., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “A right-wing, racist, Republican Eden.” | – Julie A., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Choking on the phlegm of conservatism” | – James D., Grand Rapids, Michigan
- “Diversity equals both Dutch and Conservatives.” | – Timm S., Grand Rapids, Michigan
6. It’s not organic.
We’re living in the age of the user. Social media is king. The contest has propagated itself through a combination of traditional (read: tired) public relations tactics and it’s backed by entities that represent the establishment (even if only the perceived establishment). That structure doesn’t jibe with the attempt the organizers are making to crowdsource the promotion of the city. For example:
- The already-mentioned censorship stifles contributions, thereby excluding certain populations and limiting creativity.
- The contest has already been pre-populated with entries from well-known Grand Rapidians like Betty Ford, Peter Secchia, George Heartwell, Marvin Sapp, Peter Wege, the DeVos family, and (inexplicably) Molly Mesnick – a contestant on Season 13 of “The Bachelor.”
- The story in the Grand Rapids Press (which is a sponsor) reads like a press release.
- Is there anything less organic than teasing something with vague declarations that culminate in a big reveal? (Think: “Gabbo! Gabbo! GABBO!”)
For whatever it’s worth, I wish the people behind the contest luck and I’ll be watching with interest – I hope we can aim higher for the next iteration.