Last week I shared a story about how The North Face attempted to use Wikipedia to help increase its presence in Google search results. Essentially, the gear manufacturer took photos of people using its products in some famous travel destinations, then uploaded those images to the Wikipedia entry for the location. This resulted in those images being displayed first by Google, which is often the case for photos on the Wiki site. The plan, which was hatched in conjunction with ad agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, worked as expected and probably would have flown below the radar, if the two companies hadn’t bragged about it to Ad Age. Once the story started to make the rounds however, a bit of backlash ensued.
First to lash out at TNF and its ad agency partner was Wikipedia itself. Several of the volunteer editors condemned the action and immediately went to work removing the photos, citing violations of the code of user conduct, which doesn’t permit marketing efforts on the site. Later, others joined in as well, citing the manipulation of other media outlets to improve search results and gaming the system for marketing gains. While some applaud the ingenuity behind the plan, others felt it was modern marketing at its absolute worst. Part of the problem was that TNF and Leo Burnett Tailor Made claimed they worked in collaboration with Wikipedia, although that was a fabrication. The nonprofit Wikipedia foundation had no knowledge of the plan until the story broke on Ad Age.
Since that original story broke however, The North Face has issued an apology for its actions. That apology was posted to Twitter and reads:
“We believe deeply in
@Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.”
What’s the big deal you ask? At issue here is The North Face and Leo Burnett’s manipulative practices, which aren’t exactly illegal but do fall into a gray area morally speaking. That said, I expect we’ll see more such marketing schemes in the future as other companies look for ways to game the Google system and improve their search results too. The next time it happens however, the companies involved may not be so quick to share their results, which means this subtle promotional plan is more likely to fly under the radar. Of course, this isn’t the first time an ad campaign has been used in a deceptive manor, nor is it likely to be the last. It’s just a little surprising considering the source.
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