Astroturfing – a new ethical dilemma

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Astroturf, we all know, is the grass that you have when you don’t have grass. It is faux lawn; plastic turf masquerading as the real thing. I might add it’s a pretty good proxy for many greensward applications, but there are serious doubts about its merit in the world of social media.

Marketers are skilled in delivery of carefully constructed outbound messages to chosen customers. If it’s advertising, the sponsor of the message is clearly the brand owner. If it’s PR-generated editorial, the sponsor’s identity is often ambiguous. If it’s viral campaigning, the sponsor is concealed.

Just as there are established conventions for communicating via email (don’t SHOUT by using CAPITALS) there appear to be emerging conventions in social media interactions. One of them is to be honest about your identity.

Astroturfing is a term of social media abuse. It’s when the genuine motivation for, or source of, a message is concealed form its audience, for example, when a commercially-inspired tweet pretends to be from Joe Public. So what, you may ask. It happens all the time in business. We don’t expect every celebrity endorsement of a product to be truthful, do we? Of course not! But that’s not the point. The point is that we expect contributions to blogs and online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to be genuine, just as we expect face-to-face word-of-mouth to be genuine. Deception is unwelcome.

However, temptation is too strong for some companies. Even the best can succumb. Sony, a much respected brand and organization, once created and seeded a seasonal blog called “All I want for Xmas is a PSP” designed to spark console sales. The gaming community exposed the blog as Astroturf written largely by Sony’s marketing personnel.

This raises a number of questions for me: should companies empower marketers to generate content for social networks? Is there an emergent code-of-practice for marketer-generated content? What is inadmissible?

1 COMMENT

  1. Francis: Whenever I need examples of innovation, sales scandals offer consistently great material! Social media adds yet another essential tool in the portfolio of The Unscrupulous Marketer.

    Your observation illustrates the evolution of the Slippery Ethical Slope: “If it’s advertising, the sponsor of the message is clearly the brand owner. If it’s PR-generated editorial, the sponsor’s identity is often ambiguous. If it’s viral campaigning, the sponsor is concealed.” Opacity creeps in small degrees.

    I agree. Consumers do have a right to know who is providing messages (what we now call ‘content’). The code-of-practice you reference is a tacit agreement in some parts of the world (In the US, the government has attempted to put regulations around paid blogging).

    Two things to count on: there are always regulatory loopholes, there will always be people to expose and exploit them. The question is, which entity or organization would create a code-of-practice? Who would monitor it and enforce sanctions against the offenders?

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