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September 28, 2015
Astroturfing and Advertising
 
The proliferation of business and technology has made it difficult for the advertising and marketing communications professional to keep up. When there is so much riding on a particular campaign, yet the best way to communicate to the consumer is amplifying word of mouth, professionals charged with making a campaign work can find themselves in a tough spot. How do they use the tools around them to create a campaign that will be noticed?

Though we've seen the limits of truth in advertising breached in many industries, the industry we would like to focus on is health and wellness. With the American population increasing its average waistline, thousands of health and wellness companies, books, videos, ad campaigns, TV shows, gyms, and magazines have popped up to help the nation cope and fight its health issues while, at the same time, making a profit.

And nothing is wrong with that.

What is wrong is how several bad apples have tried to do it. It's called "astroturfing." "Astroturfing" is creating a feigned grassroots campaign in order to convince the consumer that real support or opposition exists, therefore actually creating the support or opposition the brand, organization, or cause wanted. Think of it as an untruthful way of getting a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

When an astroturf campaign is live, we see the byproducts of trolling, fake white papers and sales pages, and even web videos advocating the campaign. Consumers get duped into it and start believing in the self-produced movement. 

Not exactly the kind of campaign any ethical marketer would want to engage in.

Unfortunately, the health and wellness industry, with the race for the latest exercise, the latest pill or diet fad, or the fight against [insert here] that is bound to kill us, the crowd has seen its fair share of astroturfers. 

Note: These fake campaigns are called astrosurf since astroturf is fake grass. Fake grassroots = astroturfing.

Experience Life magazine, a publication put out by LifeTime Fitness, wrote a nice spread about the dangers of astroturfing and compiled a list of nine ways to spot astroturfing:

1. Weigh the response. How many comments did the article get when it first got published? Are the comment numbers around the rest of the articles?
2. Listen for reoccurring sound bites. Anytime the subject is brought up, do the same words and phrases appear?
3. Observe the herd. Back away from the groupthink mentality; can you spot the influencers?
4. Clue into "character assassination." Who is being attacked? What are their credentials?
5. Watch for flag waving. Do people stray from specific conversations to general, populist speech? 
6. Sniff out front groups. Don't be the normal consumer. Do your due diligence; be critical, yet not cynical.
7. Pay attention to tone. Is the tone aggressive, i.e., swearing and name-calling? Are they looking to posture versus having an actual debate?
8. Consider the critics. Do your research; why are these influencers so angry? Do their credentials match or trump the people they are attacking?
9. Follow the money. Who is sponsoring the organization, cause, or ad campaign?

Spotting astroturfing online can be particularly difficult, since people will more often than not search for information and sources that already align with their beliefs. Seeing that an unknown group is stirring up energy for something the consumer already supports, the blinders may go on, and they become victims to the astroturf appeal.

Or, as marketing and communications professionals, we simply choose not to use astroturfing. Imagine that.

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Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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