Turning tricks: A horrid Halloween tale of a polling company, a parenting website and the misrepresentation of mothers
October 30th, 2010
Yesterday I was alerted to a worrying press release by @MrMMarsh (who has an amazing track record in critiquing commercial surveys). It was for Bounty.com – a parenting website, conducted by OnePoll. It claimed “one in 10 women have tricked a man into getting them pregnant with less than half actually wanting the person they ‘used’ to stick around once the baby was born” and went on to make further allegations about the women who deceive their partner into helping them conceive.
These women, according to this press release, are liars and tricksters, who use their seductive wiles to beguile men into parting with their seed.
Hmmm. Sounds similar to the way we used to accuse women of witchcraft – how apt for Halloween.
And apparently that was the reasoning behind this baffling campaign. According to Bounty (who had the story on their ‘entertainment page’) the poll was just a bit of ‘seasonal fun’. Doubtless they were only thinking of this in purely ‘fun’ terms, playing around the term ‘trick or treat’ with the suggestion women ‘tricked’ men into paternity. But due to a lack of forethought they inadvertently rehearsed other, far more sinister narratives about women’s sexuality that have been used to judge and harm women for centuries.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the campaign backfired. Massively. The outcry on Twitter and elsewhere online was uniformly negative about Bounty, OnePoll, and the ‘women as tricksters’ campaign.
However, that wasn’t before the story hit the headlines with coverage in both the Sun and the Daily Record.
What’s wrong with this poll?
The press release outlines 10 ‘most common ways women ‘trick’ someone’. Since we don’t have the original questions asked we can only assume they were based around these options, which include:
1. You just didn’t talk about it
2. You told them you were on the pill
3. You told them you’d had the injection
4. You weren’t very careful about taking the pill
5. You got them drunk
6. You told them you’d had the coil fitted
7. You put a needle through the condom / wrapper
8. You told them it was the wrong time of the month to conceive
9. You had a one night stand and didn’t make them use contraception
10. You told them you were infertile
These are a very odd mix indeed, and many of them describe common events that are not deliberate attempts at deceiving a partner into getting you pregnant. For example failed contraception (listed in 4) is a fairly common way for pregnancy to occur (although this survey presents it in a far more blaming way). Being confused over when you are fertile (which is one way of interpreting number eight) is also another reason women can find themselves pregnant. Simply not discussing pregnancy is not a definite sign of ‘tricking’ a partner. For many couples the topic of pregnancy is not always paramount unless they are particularly struggling with conception.
Not using contraception on a one night stand isn’t a great idea but it does happen and unless you’re specifically out to try and get pregnant from the encounter again is not a sign of someone deliberately tricking a partner into a pregnancy. It might, however, be a case of someone assuming they can’t get pregnant from a one night stand and discovering that’s a myth.
Knowing you’re fertile and telling someone otherwise (10) is not the same as thinking you may not be fertile and finding yourself pregnant – not unusual as some women will attest.
While options 2,3 and 6 involve lying about contraception use and 7 specifically describes scuppering a contraceptive, the remaining questions could easily happen without a person deciding to maliciously mislead another. Because there is no follow up to these questions there’s no way of knowing the context in which they happened.
From this the press release jumps to talk about how women continue to lie after they’ve got pregnant and talks about trapping ‘an unsuspecting male’.
While the press release does explain the majority of women don’t do this, the overwhelming tone of the story is that women are liars and out to trap men by getting pregnant. That they’re so deceitful they’ll continue to hide the secret that they tricked someone into getting them up the duff.
Why is this survey a problem?
Leaving aside the issues outlined above there are very real reasons why a survey like this is dangerous. Pregnancy and parenthood, while often positive, can also be stressful and difficult. Both can place considerable pressure on relationships. Adding to this any suggestion that women lie about getting pregnant could be devastating to many couples.
We already know that domestic violence is intertwined with paternity disputes (see here , here and here for example), although this is more often over concerns or accusations of whether a child is the biological offspring of a parent. Jealous and/or controlling partners can use accusations over paternity or the circumstances of a pregnancy to justify abuse.
At the very least this survey could put doubt into the minds of partners that they may have been conned into a pregnancy they weren’t ready for or perhaps didn’t want. Or make women feel their partners will distrust them. This might cause new parents to worry at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. And if couples are already struggling because of distrust over conception this survey could provide unhelpful ammunition and widen the gulf between people.
Obviously it would be remiss to say no woman has ever misled a partner over a pregnancy – either with good intentions or maliciously. But this study was not robust or compassionate enough to explore this issue sensitively. Instead it overemphasises the likelihood of cheating a partner – and implies this is always deliberately malevolent.
As this is such a sensitive issue it would be reassuring to know how participants were treated. Because neither OnePoll nor Bounty have made the process of this study transparent we have no idea how participants felt about being questioned over the circumstances of their conceptions. Could they have felt judged? Embarrassed? Humiliated? Were they left fearful a partner might discover they had not been clear about their motives in getting pregnant? Were some left feeling they were liars when previously they’d simply thought they’d misunderstood their cycle?
In social research you should always be careful not to cause harm or distress, to anticipate what harms you may cause in the questions you ask. On a potentially sensitive topic like this you would usually have many steps in place to ensure participants were supported and helped if the work raised any issues for them. We have no idea if women who took part in this survey were distressed by it (or the subsequent reporting).
It is important to stress that in all probability neither Bounty nor OnePoll considered the issues of domestic violence or relationship harm when putting this work together. I am not arguing here they deliberately aimed to distress women and their partners. However it does indicate the lack of consideration behind this work. Part of good survey work (and all social research) involves thoroughly considering and planning for all potential interpretations, outcomes and consequences of your work – good or bad. It is shocking that nobody at Bounty or OnePoll could apparently see what potential problems this work could create.
Given the poll is problematic on so many levels – and the public reaction to it so negative – you might have expected Bounty and OnePoll to take immediate and apologetic action.
Bounty initially shared the story on Twitter, however once they began to receive criticism for it they deleted this message later following it up with the statement “Apologies 2 any1 offended by our recent research story – this was meant as a bit of seasonal fun & is by no means a judgement of anyone”
While they were right to apologise, their reaction that this was ‘fun’ did not indicate a real understanding of WHY people were so offended by their publicity stunt. Nor did it seem sincere given they kept the poll information as a headline feature on their ‘entertainment’ page, despite requests to remove it.
OnePoll’s reaction was as problematic as Bounty’s. If not more so. Rather than directly engaging with the issue or apologising (as Bounty attempted) they contacted me on Twitter saying Hi there – we are the agency who carried out this research, would love to have a chat with you, DM me your number? Thanks!
I suggested they email me a statement, which they duly did:
“As the agency which commissioned this research and distributed the resulting news story, I would like to respond. OnePoll polled 3,000 mothers on behalf of Bounty, looking into the subject of pregnancy. The stats emerged that a small percentage of women admitted to tricking their partner into getting pregnant. I’d like to say that the resulting story in no way glorifies or condones this, in fact Bounty support the very opposite in their quotes. As market research specialists and providers of national news, we would always present the stats, as they are, however controversial. I would like to apologise to anyone who was offended by this piece of research”.
Let’s look at this statement in more depth. The poll apparently was on the ‘subject of pregnancy’. Was this how it was presented to mothers? If so, how may they have felt if then asked to discuss if they had ‘tricked’ their partner into getting them pregnant? We don’t know the answer to this.
The press release and subsequent media coverage may not be seen as ‘glorifying’ misleading a partner, but it does make it seem like a major issue and the press release and subsequent coverage are highly judgemental to women as a result. The stats here (not presented by the company at this time) were arguably always going to be ‘controversial’ because the questions asked were framed in such a way as to create this outcome. As was the press release.
Rather than this being a case of a robust piece of carefully designed and sensitive research into fertility being accurately reported, what we see here is a deliberate strategy to create a shocking headline that will guarantee press coverage. Although it’s important to stress this is a standard approach in PR nowadays, so nothing particularly unique to or sinister about this particular poll.
I found the response from OnePoll odd. At a time when their work was being debated on Twitter they decided to email me a statement. I don’t know why. I responded:
“Thanks. I think you would be better of making these statements on Twitter and taking responsibility there. Ethically I think this was not a good approach and I hope given the criticism you’re noting from researchers, PR and other marketing companies – as well as from parents – that you will work to deliver more thoughtful work in the future.
Since you’re stating you think it’s important to put out the stats ‘however controversial’ you should also make these available via your site now so people can see the questions you asked, the way you recruited your participants and the data you collected.
Perhaps as Bounty have had the grace to apologise you may also want to make it clear it was not a serious piece of research rather than trying to make it look otherwise.
Many people were offended by the research and also your role in it. I think it best you try and repair that damage now on Twitter, on your website and through your future conduct”.
I followed this with a message on Twitter that I had been in discussion with OnePoll and advised them to apologise, justify the survey and make their data publicly accessible (as they claimed in the email is standard practice).
No response came to my email or to anyone’s messages on Twitter. At this time OnePoll have not apologised for nor justified this work on Twitter or their website. Nor have they made the data from this poll publicly available despite saying it was standard practice. They have, however, celebrated the news coverage of this story on their website.
If either Bounty or OnePoll genuinely were concerned over running this survey or the message it portrays their reaction would have been different. It suggests neither company are particularly concerned but simply want criticism to go away. Perhaps other people working in PR or communications could pick up on how this issue has been handled and what impact it could have on brand Bounty or the reputation of OnePoll.
What you can do?
Judging by responses on Twitter today, plenty of people have been upset by this survey and the actions of both OnePoll and Bounty. If you feel this has not been adequately dealt with you can take further action.
For Bounty you can write to their advertisers – all shown on their website asking them if they are comfortable placing their adverts with a parenting organisation who approve publicity stunts that present women as liars. And who then apparently ignore the distress caused to parents and the public. You may also want to do this more publicly engaging Bounty’s sponsors on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks where they may have a presence. If you belong to Bounty (or have purchased their products/services) you may consider whether you wish to continue this relationship.
OnePoll can be reported to the Market Research Society who oversee correct conduct and ethical practice in commercial social research. An outline of their professional standards can be found here, while details of how to make a complaint can be found here.
Everyone is accountable here, everyone signed this work off and approved it at all stages. From coming up with the idea, through to asking women about their experiences, through to writing the press release and subsequent submission to the media.
There were plenty of steps when SOMEONE could have noted there was a major problem and put a stop to this work. Nobody did. Everyone involved needs to take responsibility for this.
Commercial companies and market research ones need to learn they can’t misuse surveys to promote products, particularly if they could cause harm or mislead people. The same social networks they use to promote will be used to hold them accountable and expose poor practice. Creating commercial campaigns that could harm or distress cannot be explained away as ‘seasonal fun’. Here’s hoping both Bounty and OnePoll have the courage and decency to make amends for this sorry tale.Tweet