Jazz, over at Haphazard Life posted a most interesting story on Tuesday. You can read the full sorry tale over at her blog, but the gist of it was that a corporation set up a cycling blog pretending to be 3 friends who are avid cyclists.
It was a great blog by all accounts with an associated Facebook page that had thousands of “friends”. Unfortunately it was all a shill to promote some sort of bicycle.
Many moons ago when I started my very first blog, it was as one of the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s online community blogs. There were about half a dozen of us blogging about various aspects of the different communities in which we lived within Halifax.
One day the Herald added a new blogger who called himself Direct from Afghanistan. He presented himself as a local boy who’d gone overseas to soldier and was missing Halifax and the people back home, so this was his way of keeping in touch.
He posted wonderful, glossy photos of smiling Afghanistani children, beautiful scenery and fun times among the troops. He told heartfelt stories of the good works he and his peers were doing over there and the gratitude and joy with which the locals were embracing our soldiers.
Of course, the people of Halifax ate this up with a spoon. As the only province in Canada that still designates November 11th as a statutory holiday for all, they are especially devoted to and supportive of the military. Most Nova Scotians have family or close friends in the military. So, of course this blog was very well received. They all wanted to hear that their loved ones were safe and happy in this paradise.
Some of his fellow bloggers, however, couldn’t help but raise our eyebrows over all this. Not only was the photography and writing a little too polished, especially for a humble soldier, but we were also finding his Utopian vision of the whole Afghanistan thing a little hard to swallow. Not to mention that we found it very odd that he would even be allowed to blog about his mission.
So we did a little digging and found out that our hometown soldier boy blogger was actually a Public Affairs officer with DND. He’d never lived in Halifax, but had lived somewhere in Nova Scotia when he was a kid.
We brought this information to the attention of the online editor of the newspaper, but she seemed disinclined to do anything about it since he was getting them lots of online hits. So we outed him in our blogs. This caused a bit of a mess. Some people were outraged. Some people didn’t care – they wanted to keep hearing good news. Lots of angry comments all around. Amidst all the controversy the Public Affairs guy just slunk off and was never heard from again.
This sort of stealth/viral marketing is not unheard of in the world of Public Relations. PR firms often set up fake grassroots organizations/groups and/or blogs to garner support for a corporate cause or to sell a product or idea. They know that all the advertising in the world isn’t going to woo the masses as cheaply or easily as a solid grassroots group can. Grassroots organizations have been proven to affect the most significant levels of change in society.
It’s a highly unethical practice however, called “astroturfing” (for obvious reasons). I find it personally reprehensible because it sets out to dupe well-meaning people while at the same time robbing legitimate grassroots groups of their power.
Blogs that astroturf are nicknamed, “Flogs”. Working Families for Wal-Mart was a famous example. The blog pretended to be by a small group of Wal-Mart employees supporting the company in the wake of union negotiations. Of course the blog was actually written by a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart.
Judging by the comments on Jazz’ blog, this stuff doesn’t seem to bother people too much – it’s just another example of the overall bamboozling we experience every day – but for some reason this stuff bugs me a lot.
It abuses, exploits, manipulates and ultimately destroys one of the things that is best about humans – their willingness to help, support and take on a cause because it’s important to another fellow human being.