My Decision to Discontinue My Participation in the Spring Valley Herald’s Weekly Caption Contest

Subject: Serious problems with your weekly caption contest

Dear Spring Valley Herald Ombudsman,

I’ve been a loyal reader of your newspaper for many years, and of the online version since you first launched your website. It is with great sadness, then, that I must inform you that I will no longer be participating in your weekly caption contest. Although I’ve made every possible effort to work things out with your caption contest editor, he’s been completely unreasonable, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

It all began on March 29 of this year, when, on a lark, I submitted an entry to that week’s caption contest. I then promptly forgot all about it until I happened to be browsing your site on April 3 when the results were posted. At that time, I noticed some anomalies: the results were posted late (they didn’t appear until 8:07am that day, even though, overall, they show up by 8:03am 87% of the time and by 8:05am 92% of the time), and it was clear that the wrong caption had been declared the winner. I promptly reported these problems to the captions editor and provided some helpful theories about what might have gone wrong: perhaps this was an April Fool’s joke, but they’d mistakenly left off the “April Fool!” at the end, or maybe the correct results had been posted on time, but then someone had hacked into the system and changed the page at 8:07am (although I did happen to view the caption contest page several times between 7:58am and 8:07am and didn’t see any results posted until the erroneous version appeared).

The response I got to that email was perfunctory and, frankly, a little patronizing. The captions editor assured me that everything was “fine” with that page and completely ignored all my troubleshooting advice. When I asked him to explain why he chose that week’s “winning” caption over my obviously superior one, he replied it was “difficult to choose just one winner when there are so many excellent entries” and wished me luck in the next week’s contest. That’s right — instead of answering my question, he chose to whine about how difficult his job is (if it’s too much for him, I can sympathize, but he should be seeking help from his management, not airing the newspaper’s dirty laundry in public).

Undaunted, I decided to enter the following week’s contest — and again, another clearly inferior caption was chosen over mine. I began to suspect that I was on some kind of blacklist, but because I pride myself on my open-mindedness, I sought independent verification that my caption was better than that week’s “winner”. I found two art students who had not previously seen the caption contest photo and gave them each a copy of one caption (one student got my caption; the other got the “winner”). I then asked each student to draw a picture based on the caption he’d been given. The results were irrefutable: the student who’d been given my caption drew something very similar to the original photo, down to the number of zebras, the direction they were facing, and the relative positions of the lone zebra, the group, and the lion. The student who’d been given the “winning” caption drew half a dozen antelope sitting around a conference table, each with one hoof raised, staring at an uncomfortable-looking man in a suit seated at the same table. While I must give that student a lot of credit (it takes considerable talent to make antelope look natural in that position, and the overall picture is in fact a reasonable interpretation of “[a]fter careful consideration, Stanley finally decided to follow the herd”), the picture nonetheless is not at all like the original — note the complete absence of zebras and lions. In the interest of fairness, I will note that if you really wanted to criticize my methodology, you could argue that the sample size was too small to produce statistically significant results — but at $50/hour, I could only afford two art students.

You won’t believe what happened next. I sent an email to the captions editor describing my findings, with scanned-in copies of the two students’ drawings attached (and an offer to let him examine the originals and the students’ notarized statements), and gave him one last chance to correct that week’s caption results. I also inquired about the process for filing a formal appeal of his decision, because I couldn’t find any information about the appeals process on the website (and by that point I was beginning to doubt that he’d admit his mistake). His response was unbelievable — he claimed that there was “no appeals process for the caption contest” and insinuated — actually, flat-out stated — that I “might be taking this all a little too seriously”. He also said that my 746-word entry had been “far too long for a caption” and that, when judging a caption contest, he “looks for the funniest caption, not necessarily the most accurate”. Finally, he suggested that I should “probably direct any future communication regarding the caption contest to the Ombudsman”.

I probably should have written to you right away, but if what he said was true — that the caption contest really was judged on humor and not accuracy — then that might actually explain why my captions had never won. While I find it pretty unlikely that a newspaper would run a contest with such subjective judging criteria, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I submitted the funniest caption I could think of and, to my disappointment but not to my surprise, a different caption was chosen as the “winner”. Once again I wrote to him, pointing out that my caption (“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”) was generally regarded as hilarious (just Google it — you’ll find tens of thousands of references to it, going back almost two decades), while the “winning” caption isn’t cited as being funny anywhere. In his response, the editor changed his story once again — now he says that instead of picking the funniest caption, he picks “the caption which, when viewed in conjunction with the week’s contest photo, produces the most humorous overall result”.

At this point, it’s clear to me that it would be fruitless to continue to attempt to communicate with someone as clearly mentally unstable as your current captions editor, so I will not be participating in the contest until you’ve replaced him. Please let me know when you’ve done so (I realize it may take a couple weeks).


P.S. I see you’re planning to run your summer recipe contest again this year! I can’t wait to enter — my cherry pie recipe is much better than last year’s winner.

Any similarity between the caption contest in this story and the one at The Good Greatsby is purely coincidental.

23 thoughts on “My Decision to Discontinue My Participation in the Spring Valley Herald’s Weekly Caption Contest

  1. Congress needs to clearly outline a list of caption contest rules to make them universal from one contest to the next. We need a mathematic formula telling us how the judges will decide what is and what isn’t funny, and an explanation of why a 746-word entry is not a caption.

    1. They tried to do that once, but by the time the bill got out of committee, there were so many riders about abortion, gay marriage, and health care policy that it was impossible to pass.

  2. I feel terrible for you! They really should have a set of clearly outlined criteria for caption contests…any contests!!

    I hope they kick that editor out on to the street!


    1. Thanks for the support. That’s crazy, right? I mean, with a small enough font, you can even fit the picture and most of the caption on the same page.

  3. Would it be so hard to contact the obvious winner before notifying the public when the judge intends to make a mistake? Jerks. They don’t deserve your captions.

    1. You’d think they’d do that, but apparently, when something is “just a bit of harmless fun” and “not intended to be taken seriously”, all vestiges of common courtesy and common sense just fly out the window.

  4. Laura, It seems to me you have the basis for a lawsuit here. The caption editor is clearly guilty of malpractice…and I’m thinking there may also be a conspiracy charge. How else can you explain the actions of the food section editor? Coincidence? I think not!

    This is one of the funniest pieces I have read in quite awhile. Thoroughly enjoyed. Thanks for stopping by my blog and for the excellent, and I assume original idea, of putting Romeo & Juliet to music. Hard to believe no one has thought of this before. I’ll mention you in the credits Vb

    1. I’ll give them a couple weeks before I sue them — I wouldn’t want to overreact.

      If you like my Romeo & Juliet idea, here are a couple other totally original ideas that no one has ever thought of: take The Tempest, but do the whole thing on another planet (and throw in a robot — fun for the whole family!), or take King Lear, turn the daughters into sons, and set the whole thing in feudal Japan.

  5. It’s about time someone “outed” these completely biased and self serving “editors”. Good for you for your unswerving diligence, although I’m sure they will blacklist you for certain.

  6. This happens to me all the time. Clearly, sophisticated humor is rarely appreciated by the online masses, and therefore trying to participate in such contests is a futile effort. Perhaps you should try blogging.

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