To Fabricate or Not to Fabricate

Robert Stribley   March 12, 2009

astroturf-astroturf1

Lifeless, shiny, efficient: Astroturf, the hoax which fools no one. (via)

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in a meeting with your client when they ask you to write up some glowing reviews of their wonderful new widget. Let’s be clear: they want you to make stuff up. Do you accept your mission? Or do you graciously turn the creative writing exercise down? Before you make that choice, consider a couple of instances where this practice – what might loosely be described as astroturfing – went terribly awry.

Just last month, The Daily Background caught computer hardware manufacturer Belkin in the act of hiring people to write flattering reviews about their products. Belkin utilized Amazon’s site Mechanical Turk, where users complete micro-jobs for micro-payments, to solicit for folks both to write reviews of and to vote negative reviews down on Amazon.com and NewEgg. Needless to say, when these job postings were discovered, Belkin had to engage in some serious damage control. Belkin’s president posted an apologetic note to the company’s website, but critics were further perplexed when it appeared that Belkin’s Business Development Rep, who created the job postings, had not been fired.

Similarly, Australian marketing agency Naked Communications ran into trouble when they launched a viral video campaign last year. Presented not as an ad, but as a user-generated YouTube clip, it featured a pretty girl trying to track down her crush, some handsome guy she met in a café. Fortunately, the young stud had left his jacket behind, which she described in some detail as “beautiful.” “It’s got a silk lining,” she continued, “It’s got beautiful striped interior. Smells good, like him.” She then offered an email address to which the jacketless gent could reply. As the video began to circulate, social networking commentators caught on pretty quickly that the clip was not a true confession, but an engineered campaign for Witchery, an Aussie clothing company. Problem is Witchery denied any link to the video and controversy quickly ensued. The resulting backlash spiraled so intensely that Naked’s CEO eventually quit as a result of the exposure.

Individual consumers might have markedly different reactions to these two incidents. Some might consider the former more deceptive, the latter a harmless marketing stunt. That the problem was how Naked handled the controversy, once it erupted. Nonetheless, the end result of these incidents is that many people felt deceived by and disenfranchised from all of the companies involved.

Suffice to say, even if you don’t have a problem with these practices, you should consider your brand. It may come out a little tattered if your fictitious romps are ever uncovered.

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5 Responses

  1. Tim Wild says:

    It seems pretty clear that paying people to make stuff up in any forum is likely to backfire pretty quickly. But it also raises the question of where bloggers or other influential digital media draw the line when it comes to endorsement.

    As soon as a blog starts to garner serious traffic or media attention, I’m assuming the author starts to receive gently solicitous communication from promotional staff within that specialist area. PR people send packages, invitations arrive on the doorstep etc. Just as other media have whole industries dedicated to influencing their content for commercial advantage, so does the web.

    I’d be interested to hear from a blogger or online journalist about this – where do they draw the line?

  2. Ed says:

    I review books on my blog. Over the years, I’ve gotten some pretty great books for free, and lots and lots of terrible books also (easily translated into new used books at my local used bookshop). I’ve also gotten to know some of the PR people pretty well, and to know what they want–which is not necessarily a well-written review, but simply a mention, a blurb, a notice. In fact, major publishing houses will send you pull quotes, reviews, summaries, and interviews usually with each promo–a sort, of ready-made review, if you’re inclined.

    I solicit a book every week or so–about 6 books a month. I usually get around 15 to 20 books a month, most, obviously, unsolicited. I always review the solicited books, but feel no compulsion to review unsolicited materials. I also try to not write wholly negative reviews. If I have no time to review a book (because I have too many to read, plus a life to live, a job to work, etc.), but the book looks interesting, I’ll read a bit to get a sense of the style, and simply blurb it, admitting I haven’t read all of it yet.

    Sometimes, I get stuff that’s pure awful, usually from vanity presses–self-help books and stuff. The weirdest thing is that the PR stuff from these places is the pushiest, vainest, most delusional crap. Major publishing houses are far more restrained–an old industry that shouldn’t have to rely on viral campaigns or gimmicks I suppose.

    Incidentally, I did recently get a book from a small indie publisher out of Philadelphia, a zombie themed deal. The publisher is trying to create a kind of viral buzz about the book, but it will ultimately fizzle–because the book is awful.

  3. Robert Stribley says:

    I have personal experience with this myself, Tim.

    Similar to Ed, I write music reviews (I’ve also written many book and art reviews), and I often receive CDs I’ve not agreed to review from particular labels – labels whose music I often happen to enjoy. I’ve long made it a policy that I feel no obligation to review unsolicited material – and that if I do review the CD, I’ll give it an honest review even if I don’t like. I have the luxury of selecting many of the CDs I write reviews for, for the magazine I write for, so I generally try to avoid reviewing music I know in advance I’m not going to like.

    Back when I reviewed books, I picked up the books I was going to review for free from a large bookstore chain, whose initials begin with B&N. I had to return these books when I was done with them, but that chain nonetheless got a blurb with each review, which said some like, “Book provided by You-Know-Who.” Once, the manager of that particular bookstore asked me to review a book she wished to promote. I reluctantly agreed and proceeded to review – candidly – the worst book I have ever reviewed. When I returned to the store the next time to pick up a new book and to return the old, the manager proceeded to follow me around the store, loudly berating for giving the book a bad review, saying that they gave me all these books and the one time she asked me to review something I could have at least written a nice review. I told her I agreed to write a book review, not a press release. She replied that the author was coming to the store for a signing and she’d told her a review was being written. Awkward, huh? Yep, but I still think she shouldn’t have asked me to review the book if she didn’t want an honest review.

  4. Ben Kunz says:

    As an advertising agency director, I oppose paid posts even if disclosed because they create an unethical form of communication. The *source* of the communication is misrepresented; an opinion is not truthful, and this creates confusion for both the end consumer and the marketing message. There is a reason that advertising and editorial have been clearly delineated for a century — clarity of source makes messaging work better.

    All the controversies you mention above signal marketers walking into murky waters, triggering anger from audiences that don’t want to be lied to.

    The paid post controversies really show the immaturity of social media. I took Chris Brogan to task in a recent BusinessWeek column over his 2008 $500 Kmart gift card blog promotion — and wrote, hey if we sell out written opinions, why don’t we insert paid brand mentions into oral opinions as well? Imagine being in a business meeting and someone saying, “you know, I really think we should benchmark Kmart’s customer service. And if you tell someone else too, I’ll give you a $500 gift card!” The problem isn’t disclosure, but elevation of topics to places they don’t belong and the bending of opinions that diminishes the originator’s voice.

    Despite the questionable ROI on such attempts the trend is unstoppable, of course. Every new network gets polluted by people trying to game the system. Telephones had telemarketing; email has spam; systems tend to self correct eventually with Do Not Call lists or spam email filters, and eventually some software will help us weed out fake shilling in online networks.

    It’s worth noting Google has voted all this down. Google requires bloggers who accept compensation for reviews to insert a no-follow tag, stripping the blog of any impact on the brand’s organic search rankings. Google has threatened to remove the page rank of any bloggers who don’t comply.

    Interesting, isn’t it, that the biggest search engine in the world considers paid posts such garbage that they need to be ignored, as invalid entries in the knowledgebase of humankind.

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