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Sarah Yu '11: Campaigning to win

A few weeks ago, I was walking through the lobby of the Sciences Library after a late evening of intense readings about political theory. A group of friendly freshmen stopped me as I was leaving and asked me to watch their video entry for the housing lottery first pick contest. Feeling an urge to participate in the community after long hours of solitude, I agreed.

It was a fun video to watch, entertaining, shot in various locations around campus and put together with some clever editing. I logged in under my Brown ID, voted for them and, to my surprise, received a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup as a thank-you present. I walked back to my dorm feeling good about myself.

I read about this group's victory in The Herald's March 8 article, "First-pick contest causes controversy," not expecting that campaign ethics had been introduced into the debate. The controversy surrounded the campaigning techniques of participant group Insourced, the above-mentioned freshmen of my anecdote. Insourced was accused of breaking campaigning rules in order to attract voters and more attention to its video. They won, say some other contestants, not because of the superior quality of their entry, but because of the aggressiveness of their methods.

It's a natural and practical action for any group participating to attempt to get as many votes as possible. Creating a Facebook group and inviting friends to vote is just the first level of active campaigning, but Insourced clearly attempted to reach a wider audience with its campaign.

Before I go any further in discussing the ethics of campaigning for the first pick contest, I would first like to commend Insourced on the amount of energy and time they dedicated to the contest. For busy college students with a multitude of conflicting priorities, Insourced's elaborate strategies to increase their chances of winning were a sure sign of positive dedication.

Campaigns can become brutal, and any contest that is based on popularity can ultimately become controversial. The first pick contest, by nature of its online voting system, definitely has the potential to turn its focus from the videos to the votes. I remember last spring, when it was "suggested" that a candidate for the position of Undergraduate Finance Board vice chair position withdraw from the election when he was caught tearing down opponents' posters. I think we all became more aware of the sensitivities and ugliness of election campaigning, even when sheltered inside Brown's cocoon.

Unlike last year's UFB incident, however, the housing lottery first pick contest did not have any guidelines or rules against methods such as those used by Insourced, and thus advertising and campaigning were to be at the discretion of each participating group. Insourced didn't break any "rules," and they certainly did not decrease or consciously damage other contestants' chances in the process. Really, in more absolute terms of competitive campaigns in general, all of this is relatively tame.

Furthermore, I would be surprised if other contestants were not aware of Insourced's campaigning presence in the dining halls and at the libraries before online voting ended. It is hard to believe they did not predict the possible larger number of votes Insourced could have attained through their unconventional methods. Even if Insourced's strategies had been largely ignored by the wider student population at Brown, they would inevitably have drawn a considerable amount of attention, especially from upperclassmen and those not personally acquainted with the participants of the contest, such as myself.

I agree that it is unfortunate that much of the competition, or at least the voting process, can focus on the campaigns more than the actual content of the entries. Perhaps there are some structural changes that can be implemented to improve the system, such as those suggested by the March 12 letter to the editor, "Don't discontinue first-pick contest — improve it." I can also think of a few suggestions off the top of my head: a ceiling of how much time and money contestants can spend on the contest to regulate "unfair measures" and offering a "judges' choice award" for quality entries that may be overshadowed by others' popularity.

For now, I would like to ask students indignant at the outcomes of the contest to think of this as a part of our preparation for entering the real world (or at least for the actual housing lottery), where we will undoubtedly be exposed to much more aggressive tactics than these. Putting aside any negative attitudes towards campaign strategies, perhaps we can even agree that Insourced has given us some interesting recommendations about creative and useful methods for making ourselves known. After all, participants enter a contest with the ultimate goal of winning, and a large part of any competition is based on how well the contestants try to win.

Sarah Yu '11 is an international relations and history concentrator from Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at xia_yu at


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