Monday Mornings with Madison

Fake Reviews – Part 1

The Spread of Astro-turfing

It’s been said that people do business with people they know, like and trust.  That is considered by many to be a basic truth of business.  The key ingredient of that formula is trust.  Customers want to do business with companies that they trust will do a good job and treat them fairly and courteously.   Long before the Internet, consumers used the old-fashioned but reliable method of identifying worthy vendors:  Word-of-Mouth.  It was understood that past performance was the best indicator of future behavior.  From doctors to department stores and from Realtors to restaurants, people would frequent nearby businesses recommended by a family member, friend or colleague.  A business that was highly recommended generally could be trusted to deliver a good product or service.

With the advent of the Internet, however, consumers had more choices of companies with which to do business, including companies that were much farther away than their neighborhood.  The global village offered more choice but with it also came the challenge of knowing which businesses to trust.   The old-fashioned method of identifying worthy vendors was updated for the Internet age.  Word-of-mouth referrals evolved into online customer reviews.  To facilitate the process, websites sprung up that allowed consumers to write reviews about their experience with that business.  Sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, Angie’s List, Urbanspoon, Chowhound, and others, allowed customers to rate vendors; everything from restaurants and hotels to retailers and professionals.  Problem solved?  Not exactly.   It now appears that as much as 25-33% of all online reviews are completely bogus.   Called astro-turfing, the problem of fake reviews is a growing.

Crossing the Line

In general, business marketing tends to highlight the strengths and ignore or disguise the weaknesses of a company’s products or services.  In today’s fiercely competitive world, it is not uncommon to find slanted or exaggerated marketing.  A new business might claim to have 100% customer satisfaction, but doesn’t disclose that the company has only been in business for a month.  An established product label might claim to be “New and Improved” when the only thing that changed about the product was the scent.  A new law firm might show a robust staff of 10 attorneys on its website but half of the attorneys are ‘of counsel’ and may be doing little or no work for the firm at all.  A new real estate Brokerage house might claim to have 25 years of experience on its website, but that is actually the cumulative number of years of work experience of the five Realtors at the firm.

Astro-turfing, however, goes far beyond manipulating facts or putting the best foot forward.  Astro-turfing is the process of having people give (or seem to give) reviews, testimonials, endorsements or statements as to the performance or quality of a product or service without the reviewers having any personal knowledge of the product or service. An astro-turf review gives the appearance of being completely unbiased and unsolicited when it isn’t.

The History of Astro-turfing

While it might seem that astro-turfing is a recent phenomena it is known to go as far back as the days of Shakespeare, and probably predates that.   For example, in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, Cassius wrote fake letters from “the public” to convince Brutus to assassinate Caesar.  In that case, astro-turfing was used for political gain.   This practice of making statements to influence public opinion in the name of an impartial third-party continues in politics even today.  In fact, that’s how the term originated.  The term “astro-turfing” was first dubbed in 1985 by then U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.  He is quoted as saying that “a fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf… this is generated mail”.  (Astro-turf refers to the fake grass often used in football fields.)  Bentsen was describing a “mountain of cards and letters” sent to his office to promote the interests of the insurance industry.

The practice of astro-turfing, however, has also been used in business for centuries and is still used today.  In 1993, for instance, Phillip Morris, Burson-Marstellar and other tobacco companies secretly created an organization called the National Smokers Alliance (NSA) in 1993.  Under the guise of a grassroots organization of pro-smokers, the NSA initiated aggressive PR campaigns from 1994 to 1999 meant to exaggerate the appearance of mass support for smokers’ rights.  According to the Journal of Health Communication, the NSA had mixed success at defeating bills that threatened to increase taxes on cigarettes and damage the revenues of the tobacco industry.

Technology Takes Astro-turfing To Next Level

Techological developments such as email, automated phone calls, form letters and the Internet made astro-turfing more economical and prolific.  Social media and blogs then compounded the problem further by making it ubiquitous.  Now, from the smallest companies to the largest organizations are being caught in varying forms of astro-turfing.

In 2001, for instance, while Microsoft was defending against an anti-trust lawsuit, a group entitled Americans for Technology Leadership (ATL) coincidentally initiated a letter-writing campaign.  Under the guise of conducting a poll, ATL members sent pro-Microsoft consumers pre-written letters to send to involved lawmakers.  The effort was designed to make it appear as though there was public support for a sympathetic ruling in the anti-trust lawsuit.  There was nothing wrong with this except for the fact that the group was heavily funded by Microsoft.

If that form of astro-turfing seems totally obvious, consider that not all instances of astro-turfing are so transparent.  In 2006, two Edelman employees created a blog called “Wal-Marting Across America.   According to an article that ran on October 9, 2006 in BusinessWeek, the folksy blog featured the journey of Laura and Jim, a couple on their maiden trip in an RV.  Their blog captured their experiences as they journeyed from Las Vegas to Georgia, stopping and parking for free at Wal-Mart Stores.  Coincidentally, every Wal-Mart employee that Laura and Jim run into, from cheerful clerks to picture-perfect executives, absolutely loved working there.  It turns out that Laura and Jim’s entire trip was organized and funded by Working Families for Wal-Mart.  That group was formed a few months earlier by Edelman, Wal-Mart’s PR firm, in order to counter anti-Wal-Mart sentiment from union-funded groups.    Even their new, mint-green RV was emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.

Astro-turfing takes many forms.  For example, in 2007, Ask.com created a print ad campaign that was designed to give the appearance of a grassroots effort that portrayed Google as an information monopoly.   In China, hundreds of thousands of people were paid to write social media posts (.50 each) that supported the government in order to drown out dissident dissent.   Reverb Communications, a PR firm, was caught using interns to write favorable online product reviews for Apple.   And this behavior is not limited to mega corporations and countries.

Next week, tune in to learn why so many companies – big and small – are engaging in astro-turfing, what is being done to stop the practice and how genuine companies are dealing with the issue.  Don’t miss it.

Quote of the Week

“Best keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you see the world.” George Bernard Shaw

© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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