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The Green, Green, Grass of... Astroturf?

by Tom Ierna, May 16, 2003

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Astroturfing is a type of marketing tactic that borders on fraud whose name is an ironic parody of “grassroots” campaigns. Where Astroturf is a manufactured grass substitute used in sports complexes, astroturfing is a manufactured and sponsored grassroots-style marketing campaign. As with any type of marketing campaign, there are both mild and egregious forms. “Paid advertising” or “special advertising sections” usually have a totally different look and feel from the media that surrounds them and qualify as mild.

When there is little indication that the content is advertising, is designed just like the surrounding media, or appears in sections normally reserved for feedback by consumers or readers, the potential harm is much greater. Astroturfing has been used for decades by political campaign groups and the technology marketing sector seems to be getting saturated with some of the more hardy types. The most effective campaigns are usually the most ethically bankrupt.

Most astroturf comes in the form of opinion, sometimes drawn from individual anecdote and sometimes presented as editorial; but it is always presented as coming from someone in the target audience to draw on group empathy. Many times, astroturf campaigns are unbranded or are unsigned. “Letters to the editor” may be signed by a nonexistent person or simply initialed. Editorials may be written by a respected member of the target community or by someone on the editorial staff.

One technique for telling if something is astroturf is how quickly it spreads and into what forums. Do you see essentially the same letter or statement on bulletin boards, newsgroups, and online news feedback areas? Marketing companies think nothing of paying people to post in a way that promotes a certain way of thinking.

Is it ethical?

Does the media outlet assist in making the questionable ad blend in? If so, their ethical standards come into question. When an astroturf campaign hits the unpaid “Letters to the Editor” page or other uncompensated feedback, the publication shouldn’t automatically be blamed. Dominic Milano, Editorial Director of CMP’s DV Media Group, says of the process employed by the editorial staff; “If we get a letter that contains nothing other than a shameless plug for whomever is writing it, we won’t run the letter. On the other hand, we’ve been the target of many a vendor-sponsored letter-writing campaign in the past. In such cases, we might run one or two representative letters ... or not.”

The content isn’t always generated by the vendor themselves and this may make it even more difficult for an editorial staff member (or the reader, for that matter) to discern the piece’s origin. For instance, a freelance piece may be shopped around by the author rather than the marketing organization. In some cases, astroturf editoral content may reincarnate itself as a white paper or special supplement.

When the content is clearly marked as advertising, there’s nothing wrong with a media outlet being paid to run the ad. Most magazine editors are very careful not to cross the line between editorial and advertisement. Says Milano, “Our main concern (is) that it was clearly labeled as an ad.”

What about the ad content itself? The most ethically questionable form of astroturfing occurs when false groups, coalitions or affiliations are created as entities to promote in grass-roots fashion. These lobbying organizations can sound authentic but may be owned completely by the marketing company that is using them as their mouthpiece. Creating whole media outlets to act as newsmarketing sources is also common.

Famous examples

Sony’s fake movie reviewer

David Manning is created from thin air, and quotes from his nonexistent reviews appear on movie marketing materials.

Mother Jones reports on political astroturfing.

An expose on phone-based astroturf, paid for by political campaigns.

Republican party caught in online astroturf campaign

Using Google, the Inquirer.net spots a astroturf campaign and follows it back to the online source.

Microsoft shilling

Many examples of Microsoft’s hardball astroturf practices.

Offensive Defense

Astroturf campaigns are usually defensive in nature. They are used to show an uprising of the “people.” Whether the anecdotes are positive or negative depends on the marketers, but the campaigns are usually in response to something. Attempting to sway public opinion in response to negative press, lawsuits, competitive threats and even other marketing campaigns are all favorite reasons to plant Astroturf.

Apple, the Target

Apple has been the victim of several Astroturfing campaigns of late. In one example, the sponsor is easy to spot. In another, the patronage is not directly apparent, but the content points to some likely suspects.

Some campaigns are fairly transparent (or should be, anyway, to observant readers). WiFi, Airport, 802.11 – no matter what you call it, Apple was an early adopter. Like with USB, our favorite fruit company made wireless ethernet consumer friendly years before Linksys, Intel or Microsoft. Yet when Wired published a supplement to the magazine called “UnWired” designed to promote wireless adoption, it was clear that it was more about pimping Intel’s new laptop chip than a balanced piece about wireless’s history and future. In fact, Apple was only mentioned once in the several-page adverzine, but Intel’s new Centrino, and laptops with built-in wireless were mentioned countless times, while simultaneously being surrounded by ads from Intel and PC makers using the Centrino. This particular piece of astroturf attacks Apple’s wireless mindshare indirectly, by method of exclusion in favor of the presumed sponsor, Intel.

Other efforts are more clouded. Claudia Kienzle is a respected professional journalist who has been covering the media production industry for over twelve years. Several months ago, she was hired and put under NDA by a company to write about a boutique effects shop called the Orphanage and their switch from the Mac to the PC. This one-page astroturf advertisement (this copy scanned from DV Magazine) has been published in several magazines, most of which are clear about it being paid advertising. This particular piece is sponsored, and as such, the content is owned and controlled by the patron. One must assume patron involvement since the piece is seriously stilted, despite Ms. Kienzle’s stellar track record of being an even-handed production-beat journalist.

Followup

Claudia Kienzle responds in a letter to the editor.

Because of Ms. Kienzle’s NDA, she was unable to expound on her feelings about any editorial changes made to her reporting by the patron. None of the people interviewed for this article were willing to divulge the sponsor. Milano’s DV Magazine ran this ad in the same issue as a story on the Orphanage but stated that “we didn’t want it appearing anywhere near our own story. We always try to avoid ad/edit adjacency conflicts.” The same appears true of Primedia’s Millimeter Magazine, whose most recent issue also had a story on the Orphanage, and ran the Astroturf with many pages of content separating them. On the other hand, EMedia’s treatment of this piece looks less like an advertisement and more like a part of their magazine. On their Web site, EMediaLive, it appears in a section that supposedly contains white papers, and the printed piece looks like content, having only the words “special supplement" to let you know it’s an ad.

The Orphanage piece appears to be in response to Apple’s moves in the production industry. The most likely suspect for the sponsor of this campaign is Adobe, since their After Effects product is shown in such a good light in the article. The campaign talks about the performance gains to be had in After Effects on Intel machines – this coming at the same time as the revelation that Adobe’s multiple processor support on the Mac is almost nonexistent, and that the speed differences between equally priced Macs and PCs can nearly be overcome, and in some cases surpassed, by giving MP support a helping hand and installing the After Effects batch renderer on the Mac.

“I’ve been astroturfed!” (or, “Getting plastic stains out of your monitor”)

What do you do when you encounter astroturf? Fight grass with grass. If you see thinly-veiled astroturf or even just badly disguised advertising, let the publisher and editorial staff know that you don’t like it. Taking the issue up with the sponsor, if it’s apparent who is responsible for it, might also be effective. Getting the information out that something looks like real reporting but is actually an advertisement is the real goal, so calling it when you see it is vital. Always be skeptical – if people call you for surveys, ask who they are and what their affiliations may be. When being asked to be a data point by responding to polls, know who you’re helping – your datum will likely correspond to hundreds or thousands when the extrapolations are complete. Besides the “letters to the editor” section, there are many loud public forums on the Internet which allow open discourse on topics that may be the focus of grassroots or astroturf activism. Just be aware that you’ll potentially be competing in public with the highly paid marketing firms spreading the seeds of false knowledge.

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