There is something just plain fun about the idea of participating in a “flash mob.” A phenomenon that reached popularity in the mid 2000’s, flash mobs were originally used as a form of artistic expression or performance art. As popularity increased, businesses sought to capitalize on this trend, incorporating flash mobs into their marketing efforts. Companies like T-Mobile and Ray-Ban organized these events to increase visibility for their brands; SunTrust Bank partnered with United Way to raise awareness for the cause. Regardless of the goal, the idea was to create spontaneous, fun for the unsuspecting.
Not so much with the “spontaneous, grassroots” marketing trend known as astroturfing. While astroturfing has been around in some form forever – examples are even found in Shakespeare’s work –the rapid adoption of social media has given new life to this guerilla marketing tactic. It’s easy to establish a movement through online discussion boards, product reviews, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites and other channels when the authors can stay relatively anonymous.
So what is astroturfing? Astroturfing is designed to mimic grassroots advocacy supporting political, organizational or corporate agendas. An astroturf campaign attempts to give the impression that the organization is supported by large numbers of passionate fans when, in fact, that support is wholly manufactured.
The “marketing” goal is to quickly raise awareness. The insidious goal is to create a groundswell of support for an issue, product or service that preys on the human need to be part of something big and the belief that if a large number of people support something, it must be right.
While astroturfing is not illegal, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and many other industry associations have prohibited its practice and questioned the ethics.
In spite of this, examples of astroturfing may still be seen in modern communications:
- When Microsoft was facing anti-trust issues, the groups Americans for Technology Leadership and Citizens Against Government Waste organized a letter writing campaign to state Attorney Generals. It was discovered that even dead people were very concerned for Microsoft who, by the way, evidently organized the letter drive.
- In 2006, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal revealed that the “amateur” YouTube video, “Al Gore’s Penguin Army,” spoofing An Inconvenient Truth, came from the computers of a Washington PR firm who also represented ExxonMobile and General Motors, among others.
- The company Lifestyle Lift posted anonymous positive reviews on web sites and Internet message boards and was ultimately fined a $300,000 penalty by the State of New York.
You can also see shades of astroturf-green in the names of organizations like “One Million Moms,” who have 999,300 less moms than the name would denote and is a front for the American Family Association.
Whatever you want to call it – stealth, guerilla or undercover marketing – it is not based on transparency and might also be considered propaganda. It’s a buyer beware world.
So just remember –if it looks like grass, make sure to smell and feel it — because it could be manufactured. You might just be being astroturfed.
Are there any examples of astroturfing that you would add to our list?