I hope everybody is as tired of reading this as I am blogging it! In our final installment of the expose of social linking, here's some case studies and examples of how high up the corporate ladder astroturfing goes. Part one here, part two here.
As you read this, remember these synonyms for astroturf: "word of mouth marketing," "buzz marketing," "viral marketing," "stealth marketing," "guerrilla marketing," "undercover marketing," "shilling," "roach baiting," "influencer marketing." The higher up you go and the more expensive the services are, the more vague they sound and the fancier the names.
Proctor & Gamble and the FTC
The FTC has revised its recommendations to forbid deceptive astroturf marketing. The FTC's ruling says in part:
"The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that 'material connections' (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other 'word-of-mouth' marketers."
This was actually their response to complaints. In 2005, an organization called Commercial Alert sent (PDF link) this letter to the FTC, "Request for Investigation of Companies That Engage in Buzz Marketing."
Proctor & Gamble has in the past amassed 250,000 teenagers to buzz their products before.
Proctor & Gamble's buzz-marketing unit has been hit with complaints before.
Next, Old Spice hits the social web in the biggest armageddon of spam in recent memory. And guess who makes Old Spice?
Now, I'm not saying this is proof that Old Spice was astroturf marketed. I'm just saying that I'm quietly watching and looking everywhere for proof. Don't worry, I'm not stupid. I know that a home blogger doesn't just catch the 6th most profitable corporation in the world on a whim. One thing I do know is that a video doesn't suddenly get tens of millions of links from everywhere simultaneously, within seconds of it going up, when it's only had a few thousand views. I don't care how clever it is.
By the way, this is a good place to mention that in the UK, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) governs what advertisers can and can't do - and they, too, came down on astroturfing in 2008.
Gaming Digg - An Industry by itself
Here's the Los Angeles Times' article on USocial, an Australia-based company that games sites including Digg, StumbleUpon, and AOL's Propeller (this was in 2009). Amongst their clients are a Darfur foundation, the U.S. Marines, the Mormon Church, and the Korean Department of Tourism. Digg sent them a cease-and-desist, but the CEO in his interview with the LAT basically wipes his ass on it right there: "I'm not in their [Digg's] country of operation, and the people that I'm employing are scattered across the world"
That's the story that really galled me to action when Digg was acting all "well, I never!" when the 2010 Alternet story about conservatives censoring Digg broke. I immediately flashed on this 2009 one. We do this every year.
Before that was everyone's favorite geek crush, Annalee Newitz, who bought votes on Digg through Digg-gaming-company User/Submitter in 2007. Also in 2007, that was the year of the great Digg bury brigade bust.
What has been done, will be done, ever be done, about this? Kevin Rose has recently said about the 2010 incident, quote, he's "looking into it." This sounds to me like one of three possibilities:
- The hell with it, can't win. Just ignore it and everyone will forget in a week, like always.
- We're feverishly working behind the scenes to solve this problem, but we're stumped.
- Somebody finally cut Kevin Rose a check, and now he looks the other way.
I might add, it sounds fishy when the same news comes up again and again over the course of four years, and the reaction is flabbergasted surprise followed by changing the subject every time.
Companies that astroturf... or something close to it
Subvert and Profit - the most blatant of all. I hope you weren't reading this far purring that your own favorite social bookmarking site is kosher, only to find it here. Subvert and Profit has a menu.
Here's a high-end example: The Avant-Garde Institute talks about "trendsformers" in the context of "influence marketing":
"Our extensively profiled group of Trendsformers are both influencers of third parties and potential buyers themselves. Many are 'value-added influencers' such as journalists, bloggers, academics, industry experts and professional advisors. They are well-connected, have large social networks and are looked up to and trusted by their peers."
...and then you pay these "influencers" who are trusted and looked-up-to and they'll push whatever your product is. Which kind of negates the trust they have.
R2CGroup is pretty aggressive about it, if you read deep enough. In the "Online Reputation Management" section:
"Your media investment will work harder if the online chatter – peer reviews, blog entries, etc. – are positive. Our reputation management services help you better control this content through audits and strategies that allow you to help shape the online conversation – and respond immediately to any negative postings."
Vague, vague, vague... what form does this control of content and response to negative postings entail?
"Do I have to disclose I received advertising revenue from this service...?
We recommend you put up some type of disclaimer or disclosure in your own words or in a graphical banner ad format somewhere on your blog that you may earn revenue from your blog from advertising products and services. For example on your "About Me" page on your blog, which is usually linked from your blogs homepage, you should mention you may receive advertising income from blog ads and links on your blog."
Oh. So if I blog about what a great breakfast I had this morning at Smokey Joe's Cafe, I don't have to put a disclaimer at the bottom of my post saying "This message brought to you by Smokey Joe's Cafe." I can bury that somewhere on my "about me" page. Actually, I don't even have to say that Smokey Joe's Cafe paid me, I can just say that I "maaaaaay" earn revenue from my blog from advertising products and services. Actually, I don't have to... it's just being "recommended."
We just went through this a year ago with a Microsoft Evangelist who was astroturfing on boycottnovell.com. We started with an incendiary comment on one blog which led us to another blog where we eventually discover an oh-by-the-way disclaimer buried on their 'about me' page. It's practically by the blogvertising book! By the way, this adventure earned me the "pleasure" of getting acquainted with David "Lefty" Schlesinger, you long-time readers will recall (no doubt with a shudder).
Finally, one very ambiguous example is Optimum7. They don't come right out and say "we rig social bookmarking sites for you," but they sure have a page emphasizing just how necessary and essential social bookmarking is to their strategy.
My purpose with this series is not to blow whistles or point out any specific company as engaging in an illegal practice. The laws are still either nonexistant or foggy in this sphere. There is certainly tons and tons of ethical questioning we can do about this practice, but so far we can't haul anybody into court. But the day might come.
In the meantime, my purpose is to raise awareness of the fact that astroturfing social media is a huge business. I've not even scraped the tip of the proverbial iceberg here - all of this has been the equivalent of viewing the iceberg through a telescope from miles away. I found all these examples merely by typing one of those synonyms for astroturf (which I gave at the top of this post) into Google and clickin' at random.
And remember, that's just the parts they let the public know. Here's one last example of just how nasty it gets, using an example from meat-space instead of cyberspace. From this Daily News story about stealth marketing:
"I was with a bunch of hot girls and we would just walk into bars, whip out our BlackBerries and try to get guys to look at them by flirting," says Royter. "We'd say, 'Put your number in my phone and I'll totally call you. We'll go out on a date!' But we just wanted them to try the BlackBerry. I definitely didn't call anyone."
Gee, that's... sickening. Dad must be proud. My respect for Blackberry just plumetted.
Now ask yourself: If real, live people can be hired to do this in real life, face-to-face, in a bar, just to shill a friggin' gadget, is it really so hard to believe that people are willing to do this in droves from the cozy anonymity of the Internet?
Bonus buck: Check these journalism warning labels. There witty stickers are made of win between two slices of win with a win dressing.
Update 8/22/10 Yet another politically-motivated astroturfing story has broken, with FOX News scrubbing Wikipedia of all mention of their $1-mil donation to the Republican Party. Complete with rigged poll using sockpuppet Rasmussen.
Update 8/27/10 Of course, I may never run out of updates for this story, but there's an astroturf industry that is so blindingly obvious that I'm embarrassed for having forgotten about it: video game reviews! Slashdot just broke the story PR Firm Settles With FTC On Fake Game Reviews. So, yes, the FTC is at least taking action, small and slow as it is.
Update 3/7/11 This is an interesting case, and one I've always suspected. Boing Boing blogged the story of how some of those phone calls to radio shows are, in fact, made-up and scripted.
UPDATE whenever Another link: "Don't trust the web", click 'show transcript'
UPDATE Since a lot of Redditors seem to come here (and they are by far the most jaw-dropped shocked that their holy innocent Mecca can be gamed like any other message board), here's a post made to Reddit itself by an advertising company explaining, in great detail, exactly how large companies astroturf social media. I'll quote it here in full:
"I am part of an advertising company. My team has manufactured numerous front page posts over the past 2 years. Already, we are prepping for the Dark Knight Rises campaign. This consists of "story boarding" ideas for funny pictures, like maybe a silly situation that happens at a movie theater where the DKR marquee is conveniently in the frame, or a submission that starts with "Look who I found when I went to see the DKR this weekend!". We are also allowed to screen the film early to pick out plot points that would be ripe for a "Scumbag Batman" or "Scumbag Bane" type meme, so we can plop those up immediately following the films release.
In order to do this, we need to maintain plenty of "average" accounts. This means having an account that's been active for 6+ months, posting semi-regularly, gaining karma steadily, so it's not rejected by the community when "they" submit their advertising. Sometimes I think this contributes to the banality of this website.
Your website is already being "exploited", but can you call it that? It seems like the community loves these types of submissions, even if they're manufactured.
Edit: Since people are showing interest, here's another example: An ad for a consumer electronic device, let's say a 3DS, where it appears that the person who took the photo is on a plane sneaking out an iphone style picture of a flight attendant playing a 3DS on some down time over the flight, behind a half closed curtain where they usually sit. There really are low to mid budget "photo shoots" where the output is a kind of blurry iphone picture, it actually makes me laugh sometimes. Maybe if a certain airline was willing to throw some cash our way, the title could be something like "Delta picks the best stewardesses" or something ironic and that would attract upvotes in a moment of "Oh I get the joke!" (theres a whole psychology of getting upvotes). This isn't something that was actually shot, but it's the kind of stuff we conceptually storyboard."