The Three Ring Ranch, a Big Island animal sanctuary, was in the running to win $50,000 from the Pepsi Refresh Project. Suddenly, a dark horse project shot to the top in public votes to take the prize. When it happened a second time, ranch founder Ann Goody and other Pepsi Refresh Project entrants smelled a rat. The New York Times reports:
The most recent flap appears to revolve around competing animal shelter contestants. Carol Schultz, the operator of Guardian Angel Feline Rescue, won a $50,000 grant in October, but now finds herself at the center of the latest distress. Ms. Goody, Mr. Herzon and others say they believe a third-party service was used to generate proxy votes from abroad. Ms. Schultz, however, says she did nothing wrong.
The Pepsi Refresh Project is an ambitious online initiative that allowed just about anyone to propose projects, then encouraged the use of social media and more traditional tools to drum up votes. Last year, a video game club at Mililani High School won $5,000 to send its members to leadership camp. A number of other Hawaii groups have also participated.
Pepsi is said to have taken the money it would have spent on a Super Bowl commercial and committed it to test the return on investment (ROI) of social media. As of last month, Pepsi has seen over 61 million votes. Unfortunately, the use of automated tools and other methods to rack up illegitimate votes is nothing new for any online popularity contest.
The latest round ends Jan. 31. Currently, the Three Ring Ranch proposal is in 67th place.