Astroturfing: Fake Reviews Hit Blogs

Feb 16, 2009

By Bernice Hurst, Managing
Partner, Fine Food Network

In these days when anyone
and everyone can get online to share their opinions, with widely divergent
degrees of honesty, manufacturers are recognizing that employees plugging
their brands need to brand themselves.

According to the Financial
, “several people” accepted an offer from someone
at Belkin, the computer supplies maker, to
pay for positive reviews on, writing about products they had
apparently not used. Once exposed, Belkin had
to rescind the offer, apologize and find ways to grovel in the face of
public humiliation.

described as “the unsavory marketing practice of generating fake grassroots
enthusiasm for a product,” is now being countered by employers who
recognize the harm it can do them. While encouraging staff to use the web
to promote their products, voluntary codes of ethics are being simultaneously

Coca-Cola, for example,
circulated a memo with guidelines that “emphasize the need for transparency.” Employees
are urged to “use common sense when discussing the brand online.”

Coca-Cola’s digital communications
director, Adam Brown, said, “We’ve always had very diverse channels
to reach consumers. Wherever they are, that’s where we go. That’s now evolved
into the need for a social media policy.”

IBM not only insists employees use
their own names but say they must “make it clear they are speaking
for themselves and not on behalf of IBM.” Employees are not allowed
to reference clients, partners or suppliers without their approval.

The Word of Mouth Marketing
Association (WOMMA) published its ethics code in 2005, emphasizing honesty
of relationship, opinion and identity for the viral and buzz marketing industry. Used as a model by other companies, WOMMA’s vice
president and head of its ethics project, Paul Rand, observed that “companies
are learning every day that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage
with social media.”

Another code has been
devised by the Blog Council, “an organization
for heads of social media at big companies” and includes a
“disclosure best practices toolkit.” New laws in both the U.K.
and U.S. address deceptive marketing practices but have not been enforced,
according to Mr. Gelles. Hopefully concern about public exposure
will be enough to motivate companies to enforce their own codes.

Discussion questions:
Have you encountered “astroturfing” and
what do you think of the practice?
do such campaigns impact
the value of consumer blogs and online reviews?
Will establishing codes of practice by companies help to prevent the

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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6 Comments on "Astroturfing: Fake Reviews Hit Blogs"

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Mark Lilien
14 years 1 month ago

Fake endorsements are something new? Since forever, many newspapers print travel and restaurant reviews with no criticism, car magazines endorse third rate autos whose manufacturers are big advertisers, drug companies pay “consulting fees” to MDs, talk show hosts endorse books they’ve never read, celebrities endorse cosmetics they don’t use, and sports figures endorse anything under the sun, from shoes to management consulting.

It’s great that a few companies are willing to sign up for honest blogs. How about the other 999 techniques of fundamental dishonesty? Or maybe it just doesn’t matter because most folks already know the score?

Mary Baum
Mary Baum
14 years 1 month ago
“But at the end of the release request, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion that I “might want to share my thoughts about XYZ at the following popular websites” –complete with hyperlinks. I guess that’s good marketing in the cyberworld, but I’m not sure it is good manners.” I agree. Better would have been asking permission to use your words as a quoted testimonial–it’s always bad form, I think, to make work for someone else. Then, a company rep could have gone to those sites–as him/herself, who works for the company, who either is or is not at that moment speaking of the company (whichever’s true) and quoted your testimonial. I haven’t read the codes of ethics the article refers to. But I spend a fair amount of time on social media (as in, if I answered the alcoholics’ questionnaire on same, it might reveal a teensy problem…) and I can think of a couple of models for best practices. One is the blogger Robert Scoble, who tells his readers where he’s working (at the moment… Read more »
Ben Ball
14 years 1 month ago
Unfortunately, but predictably, I voted in the “Very Trusting” column. Not that the average RetailWire reader falls into that camp mind you, but every generation has its New York Times or, in the case of my father, Eric Severeid, and when “they say so” it is gospel. For today’s consumers in general, I think the web still qualifies. We are indeed learning, at internet speed, that “it ain’t necessarily so.” Like generations before us learned about media prior, when access is broadened, both the truth and the half-truth become much more available. On a personal-experience note, I was recently contacted by a company I patronize for small property maintenance equipment. They make fantastic products and I have told them so in the past. The National Sales Manager sent me a note asking if I would care to comment on a particular product I had purchased. I did, and shortly after received a request for a release to post the comments publicly. So far, so good. All in keeping with what I expected from these folks.… Read more »
Richard Wakeham
Richard Wakeham
14 years 1 month ago

I remember that when Amazon introduced Kindle in 2007, there were lots of negative reviews. It turned out that 99% of those were from people who had never touched one. This situation has been going on for years.

Phil Rubin
Phil Rubin
14 years 1 month ago

Call me cynical but it is only a matter of time (and the time may be now) where we see consumers increasingly skeptical of what they read in social media. There are not enough IBMs, Coca-Cola Companies and others that are committed to transparency, unfortunately.

The upside, however, is that social media is by definition self-regulating and the posers and non-transparents will be self evident and then discounted. Social media is seen as a great way to enhance or reinforce a corporate reputation. It is also a fairly efficient way to ruin one when companies and individuals try to play by breaking the “rules.”

David Dorf
14 years 1 month ago

I almost always skip the manufacturer’s description and head straight to the customer reviews. But I don’t rely on any single review; rather, I look at a cross-section of the reviews: the good, the apathetic, and the bad. Some sites notate whether the reviewer bought the product from that site, which gives an indication that they at least used the thing.

I’m sure “astroturfing” happens today and will continue. Consumers need to use multiple sources and not base a decision on any single review.


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