Flogging (and I’m not talking about the punishment)

Posted on June 19, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The term “unofficial” can imply that a source is unreliable or that information is not confirmed. Yet, in this day and age in which people trust each other far more than corporations, unofficial is where it’s at. To some, unofficial is the real deal, the inside scoop, the uncensored truth a company might not want you to know.

Unofficial blogs have sprouted up all over the Internet, written by current and former employees, rabid fans, and brand haters. Some (like IKEA Hackers) sing a brand’s praises, while others (think Walmart) tear the brand apart. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, power has shifted to the consumers, and we are having our say.

One way in which some companies are fighting back is through fake blogs (a.k.a. flogs). You may have heard about the 2006 Walmart flog fiasco, which involved the retailer paying a couple to travel across the U.S. in an RV, stay in Walmart parking lots along the way, and write lots of wonderful things about Walmart and its many happy employees in their blog, Walmarting Across America. This scheme backfired in a very public way when the “blog” was revealed to be a campaign dreamed up by Walmart’s PR agency.

The blogosphere may be part of the “Wild West” that is social media, but that doesn’t mean there are no standards of behavior. Among many bloggers who voiced their disapproval of Walmart’s flog tactic, Kevin O’Keefe of Real Lawyers Have Blogs claimed that the company broke the unwritten rules of the blogosphere; and Aude Sapere had just one harsh word—fraud.

I agree with Kevin and Aude in that blogs have a spirit, if not a written code; and that spirit is characterized by openness and transparency. Walmart took a “by the people, for the people” type of format and used it to try to fool and manipulate the people.

What about you? Do you think it is fair game for companies to test the limits of social media for gain, like Walmart did? Or do you think flogs are a betrayal of consumer trust?

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10 Responses to “Flogging (and I’m not talking about the punishment)”

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I think what Wal-Mart did is ok. It’s not much more than a commercial, which portrays the customers, employees, and stores in a positive light. They just took that concept and expanded on it, using a format that would likely get them some free attention. There is a limit to fake blogs, however – the couple who wrote about the woman in Damascus took it too far when they said she was kidnapped. Up until that point, they had done nothing more than call attention to a subject they felt strongly about. Fake bloggers don’t specify whether the stories are real or fake – nor do they need to. It is up to the user to decide how much credibility a blog has, and as with anything, let the buyer beware.

My cat kept a blog for a few years (back before he got arthritis in his paw) – was it really a cat? Does it matter? Here’s the link, it was pretty silly: http://prattcat.blogspot.com/

Sounds like just another form of advertising to me!

I think it is much like advertising as well. Where does that put an online site like “The Onion”? Is there any place on that site that says it is fake. I think, much like the rest of life, “Buyer Beware”. You can never know someone’s intent, sources, or motivation for writing a blog, flog, comment, whatever online.

I’m all for testing limits, pushing boundries and “poking the box” as Seth Godin suggests, but it’s important for us as marketers to make sure we don’t step too far over that line, which Walmart did..

One of the great advantages of social media is that consumers view it as authentic. If I recommend a movie to you, you will likely value my word (at least I hope so) more than an ad you see for the film. I think in this day and age of greater transparency, consumers have even less tolerance for subterfuge.

Therefore, if we, as marketers, participate in any kind of chicanery, I think the damage to our organization’s reputations could be great.

By the way, loved that cartoon.

Pat

Thanks for the comments everyone! (And for sharing your cat’s blog , Eric. That’s pretty funny!) I have to admit, I’m surprised that the majority of comments are in favor of Walmart’s tactic.

My take is that an important difference between advertising and flogging is that you usually know when something is advertising, and can then take it with a grain of salt. Even those magazine ads made to look like real articles have to put “advertisement” at the top to alert people (albeit in a subtle way) that there is a bias and motive in what they are reading. And while it is hidden away in the Editorial section of its website, The Onion does admit to being a satirical publication.

While I certainly don’t think you can believe everything you read on the Web, I’d like to hope I can get some objective opinions from blogs, as well as sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. I’m one of those consumers who, like Pat suggested, is looking for some authenticity.

I have no problems what Walmart did. Did anyone think Walmart was not funding this or that some PR/publisher was not funding this? I remember hearing about families who would blog their entire year as they ate only local food, or recycled everything or used little to no electricity. Funded not necessarily in the true spirit but in the spirit of funding from a publisher. Heck, what might I do funded for an entire year. Eat, Pray and Love (I think this is the title) was funded by a publisher. If someone is funding my trip to Bali in search of myself, you bet I could write a kick butt book.

It’s unfair. As usual, people defend themselves by saying other people are actors while they are the victims. So many people don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. Some big companies have been treating their employees like dirt for years. They’ll do anything to save their reputations and justify their actions. I have had a painful esperience with one of these companies. They made up lies so that they wouldn’t have to pay me benefits the night before they were do the next day.

Creating fake identities to benefit a cause or company is not illegal, so according to a lawyer this should be fair game. However, being legal doesn’t mean it right (or smart for that matter). When a company creates a flog to advance its own interest it’s waging a propaganda as opposed to an advertising campaign. There’s a difference: advertising is transparent, and with a flog you’re trying to hoodwink your readers. People don’t like to be hoodwinked and it looks like this campaign further put Walmart’s policies under the magnifying glass – exactly what Walmart didn’t want.
There are other examples of outrage from unmasked flogs (see ‘A Gay Girl In Damascus’), so the message is clear. Using a flog as a propaganda mechanism, for good or for bad, will get you exactly what you don’t want… sooner or later.

Having read more of the comments, I guess i come from two different perspectives – business and personal. I have visited blogs to follow trends of products, etc. Yes, I get Google alerts of particular key words each day, and I look to see what is out there. Sometimes it provides a laugh and sometimes I find it useful and share it on our company’s FB. This is from my business perspective. I could not imagine deceiving someone, and I guess my general guarded, skeptical perspective makes me question much from those unknown to me. I guess anytime I see a brand/company name, I feel somewhere in the background there is a deal that was made.

Thanks for the great comments, Patricia. I agree that people who use social media for business, as well as the Web for advertising, have a different perspective than those who are only on the consumer side of the equation.


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