Astroturfing is defined as the act of creating a false sense of grassroots support. The two most common examples are politics and online reviews. For example, a Senator receives a flood of letters that appear to be a spontaneous response to a political event but the letters are actually from an organized group who will gain something by swaying the vote.
Online, it could be a series of very positive product reviews that seem to come from Average Janes when in reality they were posted by an employee of the company.
Back in September, R2Integrated did a survey on the topic and not surprisingly 87% of the people said they thought companies planted reviews. What’s interesting is that only 35% said it was “highly unethical” and only 9% said they’d stop buying from a company if they found out they were astroturfing. Why that’s particularly fascinating is that the news coverage which followed the survey all leaned heavily on how it proved astroturfing was bad for business. Really? I’m not getting that. Many studies have shown that people trust the reviews of people they know over ones they don’t, so a whole page full of astroturf reviews probably aren’t helping the cause anyway.
Still, there is that old “truth in advertising” issue. That’s why the FTC busted Reverb Communications last year after it was revealed that they were paying people to put positive reviews on their client’s iPhone apps.
But when we look at social media and how we use it to promote products, aren’t we all astroturfing to some extent? Tell me you’ve never hidden behind a fake Twitter account, or an anonymous blog comment. The internet was designed to allow people to be who they want to be at any given moment. Right now, I’m a middle-aged marketing writer but later today I’m going to be a hip, twenty-something who knows all about fashion. Like Hollywood, marketing is about creating an illusion and I don’t see where that’s so bad. (Barring the use for illegal purposes, of course.)
I prefer to see creativity over safe. If I’m drawn in to a clever YouTube video of a ten-year-old doing off-the-cuff movie reviews, then I don’t care if it’s actually been scripted and filmed by a studio.
When it comes to stocking a site with company written reviews, as long as their telling the truth, does it really make a difference if they were paid to write them or not? I say no. What do you say?