In August 2013 I wrote a letter to Nestlé. A week later I found myself on the home page of the Daily Mail, and in articles across The Sun, Huffington Post and Yahoo News. It’s my first (and probably only) experience of going viral, but what’s interesting is how the story spread and the reaction it received. Here’s a bit of background:
In 1996, in a village called Scamblesby, Lincolnshire, I found a green Polo mint in Nestlé’s Find the Golden Polo competition worth £10. I sent the Polo off and then forgot about it for 17 years. When I saw a small boy eating a green sweet on the way to work, the whole experience came flooding back, and I wrote an open letter to Nestlé, explaining that I never received my £10.
I posted said letter to the social news site Reddit, remarking on how Nestlé robbed me of a chain of countless childhood experiences that could have led to careers worth tens of millions of pounds. The letter got a bit of traction (around 40,000 views), but when Nestlé replied with a cheque for £10, a cheeky letter of apology and a whole box of Polos, the internet went a bit mental.
The reply received 300,000 views in one day on Reddit, the Huffington Post and Yahoo News then picked the story up, which was then caught, weirdly, by the Lincolnshire Echo (they must have had search alerts trawling the net for the keyword ‘Lincolnshire’), who asked me for a picture and then seeded the story to the UK nationals. When it hit the Daily Mail, The Metro and The Sun, my phone was ringing for an interview with ITV.
It was all quite exciting and funny, until I spotted this comment on the Daily Mail website:
Would this be the same James Barnard who says on his website “My job for the last 4 years has been to design (and in some cases build) creative online content for top brands.” Has James done work for Bauer Media? Has Bauer Media worked with Nestle? Is this all a coincidence? It may well be; the story may be absolutely true. But the moment you know someone works in the marketing/advertising industry, you can’t help those little niggles of doubt. – Chris__M, Peterborough
Then I started to panic a little bit. In my letter to Nestlé I had casually referred to FHM magazine, citing it as one of the distractions I’d faced as a boy that caused me to forget about the competition. Then I recalled a few comments from users on Reddit:
The fact that you took the time to put the accent on the ‘e’ shows that you most likely work for them.
F*ck you man. You blatantly work for Nestlé.
The fact that the “customer” puts an image of a green polo in the background is enough to suggest it is [PR]. Who the hell would add that to a letter of something they just thought of “this morning”?”
So now I’d been exposed as a Bauer employee and was being accused of spinning a PR campaign for Nestlé! I turned down the TV interview, as I was terrified of saying something silly, and quite frankly, felt a bit stupid for posting this letter so openly. What had started as a bit of fun, could have potentially turned into a PR nightmare.
Luckily it all died down as quickly as it escalated, and my 5 minutes of fame is now well and truly over. The speed at which this whole thing peaked and troughed was staggering. But for someone who works in digital, this was a pretty enlightening experience. Everyone in advertising is looking for that campaign that goes viral; for that one piece of content that takes off in an exponential way. But while exposure is always a good thing, you can bloody-well guarantee that the trolls are always lurking.
Here’s a transcript of my letter:
When I was 11-years-old, back in 1996, one of the highlights of my week was visiting my local sweet shop in Scamblesby, Lincolnshire. Scamblesby is an incredibly small, almost hamlet-esque, village. It has a small school, a few farms, a church and even a pub, which I used to live in.
As you can imagine, finding entertainment in a village this small was monumentally difficult. The battery pack on my Gameboy had melted to a cinder, I’d completed Bart Simpson vs The Space Mutants on my Nintendo and I was so good at pool from living in a pub that I was representing our pub in county competitions.
The owner of the local sweet shop in Scamblesby was a grumpy old, border-line alcoholic, Frenchman named George. One of my favourite antics was to visit the sweet shop early on a Sunday with an obscure amount of money like £1.78, and order 178 assorted penny sweets. Cola bottles, pink shrimps, white chocolate mice, that sort of thing. As he was counting out the sweets, my brother and I would do that old trick of shouting out random numbers to put him off. Not very funny, I’m sure you’ll agree, but to my brother and I, watching a hungover Frenchman shakily dropping sweets into a paper bag, lose count and swear “Merde!” at us was funnier than anything on TV.
Obviously, the joke ran its course, and my mother stepped in (our livelihood largely depended on George drinking at our pub). So it was off-the-shelf sweets for my brother and I from now on. One day I bought a packet of Polo mints, namely because the horses in the fields by our pub loved them.
I’m sure you’ll remember that in 1996, Nestlé ran a contest called ‘The Golden Polo’. If you found a golden Polo in your packet of Polos, you had won £1,000! I’m also sure you’ll remember the story of the owner of a racehorse accidentally feeding said horse a £1,000 Polo, as he had assumed that the Polo had just gathered fluff in his pocket!
Well that day I found a coloured Polo in my packet. It wasn’t gold, it wasn’t red (worth £100), but it was green. I showed what I thought was a mouldy Polo to my mum, who joyously informed me that I had won £10! Can you imagine what £10 is like to an 11-year-old boy? This meant a new battery pack for my Gameboy, or at least 2 hours of George time. I didn’t eat it (although I admit I did lick it to find out what a green Polo tastes like), but I read the instructions and duly posted it off to Nestlé to claim my reward.
I started Grammar school that year. I discovered FHM magazine, I learned the drums, I met girls, I learned enough French to understand George’s potty mouth. And I completely forgot about my green-tenner Polo. Right up until this morning, when I was walking to work and saw a kid in a pram tentatively lick a green sweet, knowing full-well in his tiny heart that nothing green tastes good. And I realised that in the 17 years since I found it, I never received a single penny for that Polo.
Do you know what a tenner in 1996 is worth these days? £15.90, but that’s not the point. Ten pounds of entertainment to an 11-year-old boy is utterly priceless. You robbed me of a chain of countless childhood experiences, that ultimately could have led to a successful career in French film, or seen me develop the Mario franchise to global domination. Careers worth tens of millions of pounds.
Instead you left me with a subconscious feeling of loss; a void in my life, like the void in the centre of your sweet.
I write to you today, openly, to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen to anyone else. To make you better understand your responsibility to children, and in turn, the world. You are not just fashioning sweets, you are fashioning a child’s development, you are shaping memories and therefore ultimately influencing potential world leaders. You are shaping the future.
Don’t forget that.
P.S. I WANT MY BLOODY £10!
Daily Mail – Polo mint makers finally pay £10 to schoolboy who found prize sweet in pack 17 YEARS ago
The Sun – Schoolboy is minted 17 years late…
Huffington Post – James Barnard, Nestlé Contest Winner, Receives Prize 17 Years Late (PHOTOS)
Buzzfeed – 13 Spectacular Complaint Letters (no.10)
Yahoo – Man’s disgruntled letter to Nestlé gets sweet reply
The Drum – Nestle apologises for ‘hole-ly unacceptable’ 17 year Polo mint prize delay
Kingston Guardian – Minted: Man receives Polo prize 17 years after finding promotional green sweet
The Lincolnshire Echo – Man receives prize for finding special Polo – 17 years late
York Press – James waits w-hole long time for polo mint prize