Posted December 29, 2010 7:36 am by with 8 comments

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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?

  • How many paid negative reviews do you think you will ever see?

  • I’m not so sure “astroturfing” is really that big of a deal. I know personally when I read reviews I sort the reviews to see all of the negative ones. When you make a decision on choosing a product or service you want to see what the worst possible outcome could be. If you see many 1 star ratings, you know something is wrong. But if there are only a few one star ratings and many more 3, 4, and 5 star ratings you know the product is quality. Obviously you can trust the 1 star ratings more than 5 star ratings so maybe thats why I think that way.

    Anyway, thats my two cents.

    MOS Creative

  • Nicole V. Linton

    In my agency days, as social media was starting to take off, I was asked and also asked others to post things on blogs, message boards, etc. Then, I think everyone was learning the protocol of what was ethical and what wasn’t in this arena.

    Now, we all know this is inappropriate. It’s inappropriate for a company’s pr or marketing team to post positive reviews of products to sway rankings, etc. If your product, company or service is top notch, it will earn the rave reviews and customer loyalty.

    Unfortunately, people are doing this and aren’t very good at it. I can tell these types of reviews from a mile away. And I think a lot of other people can too.

  • Tyson

    Um … no, it’s not OK. As a consumer, I don’t like companies I’m buying from mislead me in their product descriptions or other marketing. Posing as a consumer and posting positive reviews is more than misleading, in my mind. It’s just outright lying unless you disclose that you’re doing this for your client or your company.

    What would the legal department say? Have anyone ever vetted this practice with them?

  • Richard Barrington

    It may not seem like it’s bad for business because only a minority of customers are against it, but a 9% loss in volume (i.e., the percentage of consumers that say they would stop using a product if they found out it was planting astroturf) would be devastating to most companies.

  • Jonas Planck

    And how much did you get paid on a per-word basis for writing this article?

  • Walker does this as a service.

  • Melody Peterson

    “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?”

    You used the word “their” when it should have been “they’re.”

    To respond to the substance of your argument, I would disagree. You can tell the truth about a product or service without pretending like you’re a hundred different clients. Faking your sources is dishonest and unethical. It casts doubt on your willingness to tell the truth about the product or service in the first place, if you’re willing to lie about who you are and pretend to be various customers who bought the product.

    “Will it work?” That’s a different question than an ethics question. It’s like asking if you can get away with shoplifting without being caught. Yes, you can get away with it and maybe end up with a few goods. Maybe you can tell yourself that you earned it and were denied it by the evil corporations that won’t pay you enough money. A court of law would have a different evaluation of the morality, of course.

    You can also get caught doing it. It’s worth considering the repercussions of what happens if you get caught astroturfing, such as the negative publicity for your company. You might also want to reflect at night on your moral philosophy if you’re operating from the vantage point of the ends justify the means. If you do decide to go with the philosophy of the ends justify the means, you should stop looking to the Internet to assuage your conscience. A conscience is for those people who believe that the means are an important consideration in the evaluation of morality.