Tuesday, February 13

Faking The Net: Sony

I've written about anonymous posters and blogs before, most recently about The Branding Foundry's ill-advised critique on anonymous posters. However, there is one time that the spirit of anonymous blogging is truly abused.

It's a growing trend that breaches ethics and crosses over to fraud: anonymous blogs written by companies to bolster positive reviews. It's not surprising to me that some companies would use anonymous blogs to bump up sales, but I am still surprised by which companies have engaged in spinning fiction and then attempt to justify their actions under the label stealth marketing.

Sony was just one of the companies exposed in late 2006. Considering Sony's annual sales exceeded $16.7 billion with plenty of products considered among the best in the field, it didn't make much sense that it would approve a fake blog, created by viral marketing firm Zipatoni to promote the PSP.

Although MR Wavetheory incorrectly suggests "all publicity is good publicity," the retired Silicon Valley venture capitalist turned blogger was right to say Sony may as well kept the "flog" up when it came under fire. That would have been a fine place to begin some crisis communication efforts.

Of course, the main reason this 2006 news is relevant today is because Sam Coates, writing for TimesOnline, reported and brought additional attention to the fact that "floggers" could face criminal prosecution under new rules that will soon come into force.

Businesses that write fake blog entries or create Web sites purporting to be from customers will fall foul of a European directive banning them from “falsely representing oneself as a consumer,” he writes. The change will also become law in the United Kingdom, establishing that floggers can be named and shamed by trading standards or even taken to court. This includes people who write fake reviews on Web sites such as Amazon. (Amazon did tighten its review procedures in 2004 after John Rechy gave himself a five-star review while posing as a reader from Chicago).

Incidentally, what consumers do not know is there are plenty of "pay-for-space" Web sites, magazines, tabloids, and television/radio shows that have been acting as neutral reviewers since publishing first came into fashion hundreds of years ago. Many of them do not provide the consumer any disclaimers or evidence that the reviews and/or puff pieces are paid advertisements, generally called advertorials.

Whether the new law will spill over to the "pay-for-space" arena is unclear. But what is clear is that business people in the United Kingdom and United States posing as supposedly independent customers in an attempt to boost sales is ethically wrong. It's a shame too, because all they have to do is offer up the smallest disclaimer to fall on the right side of the line.

What's also a shame is that "flogging" is completely unnecessary, but some less ethical people in my industry make a living at it, convincing their clients with a kindergarten argument that it's all right because everybody is doing it. Sure, "astroturfing" as Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post correctly calls it, it is not new. Companies, politicians, and governments have hired "influencers" in specific demographics to spread the word about a product or service or political issue for years.

Microsoft even landed in hot water after it offered to pay a blogger to change technical articles on Wikipedia, the community-produced Web encyclopedia site. Microsoft's defense is that the articles were heavily written by people at IBM Corp. Microsoft also claims it has gotten nowhere trying to correct what it defines as "inaccuracies" by following Wikipedia protocol.

To me, the Microsoft case pales in comparison to a business pretending to be a consumer (maybe Microsoft is right and maybe Microsoft is wrong in this case), but it certainly reminds us that Wikipedia is hardly the end all to research. Still, Microsoft would have been better off commissioning an article that refuted Wikipedia or simply finding someone sympathetic who would have done it for free. (Oh right, that would mean developing a public relations strategy. How silly of me.)

The bottom line is that no one needs to fake it to reach the same effect. There are plenty of publications that will run feature releases without a single edit (sometimes, anyway). There are plenty of journalists and bloggers who become product fans. There are plenty of consumers who seem perfectly willing to accept advertorials as fact, even with disclaimers.

And, of course, it doesn't take much to realize that if your advertising is ineffective, maybe you have the wrong message. That seems like a great place to start, at least much better than spending even more money trying to cheat the public.



Rich on 2/14/07, 10:14 AM said...

Famous Last Words:

"Funny how ethics and self-regulation just never seem to be enough." — Brooke Capps, Ad Age


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