Astroturfing and Stealth Marketing

A quick note on Astroturfing. We are by no means involved in any political arenas. We specialize in some stealth marketing for companies, products and their brands. However, we mainly do online viral marketing. We are not involved in lobbying. We are a bit vague in our contact details for the moment, because the idea of our company is quite recent. More details will follow in due course.

From Wikipedia’s entry on astroturfing.

In American politics and advertising, the term astroturfing describes formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior. The goal is the appearance of independent public reaction to a politician, political group, product, service, event, or similar entities by centrally orchestrating the behavior of many diverse and geographically distributed individuals.

Word origin

The term, said to have been used first in this context by former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), is wordplay based on “grassroots” efforts, which are truly spontaneous undertakings, largely sustained by private persons (and not politicians, governments, corporations, or public relations firms). “AstroTurf” refers to the bright green artificial grass used in some sports stadiums, so “astroturfing” refers to artificial grassroots efforts.

As of October 2005, “AstroTurf” remains a registered trademark of Textile Management Associates. Use of the word “astroturfing” in certain contexts may be restricted in the US by the 1995 Federal Dilution Trademark Act and in the UK by the 1994 Trade Marks Act. This would generally only apply in commercial transactions, where genericide (use of a trademark to refer to any maker of a product such that the mark becomes a generic) would be a violation of law.


A form of propaganda, astroturfing attempts to selectively affect the emotions of the public, whether trying to win a campaign, be the top music record seller, the top book seller, or gain political support.

The most frequently identified cases of astroturfing are found in recent political history.

Astroturfing techniques usually consist of a few people discreetly posing as mass numbers of activists advocating a specific cause. Supporters or employees will manipulate the degree of interest through letters to the editor, e-mails, blog posts, crossposts, trackbacks, etc. They are instructed on what to say, how to say it, where to send it, and how to make it appear that their indignation, appreciation, joy, or hate is entirely spontaneous and independent; thus being “real” emotions and concerns rather than the product of an orchestrated campaign. Local newspapers are often victims of astroturfing, by publishing letters that are identical to letters other newspapers have received.

It has become easier to structure an astroturfing campaign because the cost and effort to email (especially a pre-written, sign-your-name-at-the-bottom email) is so low. Companies may use a boiler room, full of telephones and computers, where hired activists locate people and groups that create enthusiasm for the specified cause. Also, the use of psychographics allows hired supporters to persuade their targeted audience. This correlates with the merge-purge technique that combines information about an individual from multiple databases. Companies can then turn hypothetical supporters into activists for the cause. This leads to misuse of the Internet, for one person is able to play the role of a whole group of like-minded people (see also Internet sock puppet).

News consolidation services, such as Google News, as well as PR Watch and Sourcewatch, have made it easier to spot such campaigns through the search of specific key phrases that bring up results showing identical letters, articles, blogs, websites, etc.


Early examples

At the turn of the 20th century, it was common to have newspapers in major American cities sponsored by local political parties. Some were open about this practice, but many of these relationships were hidden. Other examples include political “clubs” which front for voter fraud and intimidation, letter-writing campaigns organized by local ward bosses, and some union-organized political activities.

One case, documented in the book All the President’s Men, the Committee to Re-Elect the President orchestrated several campaigns of “public support” for decisions made by President Nixon in the period preceding the 1972 election, including telegrams to the White House and an apparently independent advertisement placed in The New York Times.

Another case is that of Bolivian dictator General Luis Garcia Meza Tejada, who at the end of his promised one year rule staged a televised rally and declared “Bueno, me quedo,” or in English: “All right, I’ll stay.”

Examples from the 1990s

In 1991 a memo from PR firm van Kloberg & Associates to Zairian ambassador Tatanene Tanata was leaked, containing references to the “Zaire Program 1991”. The memo outlines steps the firm was taking to improve the image of Mobutu Sese Seko‘s regime, including placing dozens of letters to the editor, op-ed pieces and articles in the American press praising the Zairian government. [1]

In 1998, Paul Reitsma, former member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, was accused of writing letters to newspapers under assumed names praising himself and attacking his political opponents. A Parksville newspaper had asked a former RCMP handwriting expert to compare a sample of Reitsma’s handwriting to that of letters to the editor submitted by a “Warren Betanko”, and then ran a story entitled “MLA Reitsma is a liar and we can prove it”. For this, Reitsma was expelled from the caucus of the British Columbian Liberal Party and then compelled to resign his seat after it became obvious that an effort to recall him would succeed. [2]

Recent examples

In 2001, the Los Angeles Times accused Microsoft of astroturfing when hundreds of similar letters were sent to newspapers voicing disagreement with the United States Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against Microsoft. The letters, prepared by Americans for Technology Leadership, had in some cases been mailed from deceased citizens or nonexistent addresses. [3]

USA Next, a seniors’ organization which supports the privatization of Social Security, has also been accused of being an astroturf group funded by corporate interests, especially those of pharmaceutical companies.[citation needed]

In recent years, organizations of plaintiffs’ attorneys have established front groups such as Victims and Families United and the Center for Justice and Democracy to oppose tort reform.[4]

In 2005, PalmSource reportedly instructed its employees to make posts to various PDA sites around the world in an effort to counteract the growing negative sentiment surrounding both PalmSource and Palm OS.[citation needed]

In March 2006, a supposed environmental group called the Save Our Species Alliance was exposed as a front group that was created by a timber lobbyist to weaken the Endangered Species Act. The campaign director for this group is Tim Wigley, the Executive Director of Pac/West Communications. Wigely was also the campaign director for Project Protect, another front group that spent $2.9 million to help pass President Bush’s Healthy Forests legislation which has been criticized for its pro-industry bias. “[5]

In the 2005 UK general election, the Labour Party packed press conferences with party workers who appeared as genuine, concerned members of the public. The Labour Party and The Liberal Democrat Party workers also sent letters to the local press purporting to be ordinary members of the public; all of the letters fit a common template covering specific party issues.[citation needed] Aside from deceiving the readership, such tactics also deny space to genuine local residents.

In late 2005 an organization known as Working Families for Wal-Mart sprung up, claiming to be consisted of ordinary folks who claimed to believe that Wal-Mart was helping the ordinary person. However, the spokesperson claimed that the majority of their funding came from the corporate entity they were trying to compliment.

Manipulation of public opinion was also used in the Soviet Union, when political decisions were preceded by massive campaigns of orchestrated ‘letters from workers’ (pisma trudyashchisya) which were quoted and published in newspapers and radio.[citation needed]

Slobodan Milošević, a former authoritarian leader of Yugoslavia, also used astroturfing by broadcasting, on state television, numerous “letters of support” containing emotional expressions of love and support for his policies, creating an artificial impression of legitimacy.[citation needed]

In May, 2006, SanDisk launched a site called iDon’t, appearing to be a blog started by individuals opposed to Apple’s domination of the portable music player market. It’s actually an advertisement mechanism for their own device, the Sansa e200.

This is what we do, from Wikipedia’ entry on stealth marketing.

Undercover marketing (also known as buzz marketing, stealth marketing, or by its detractors roach baiting) is a subset of guerrilla marketing where consumers do not realize they are being marketed to. For example, a marketing company might pay an actor or socially adept person to use a certain product visibly and convincingly in locations where target consumers congregate. While there, the actor will also talk up their product to people they befriend in that location, even handing out samples if it is economically feasible. The actor will often be able to sell consumers on their product without those consumers even noticing it.

The goal of any undercover campaign is to generate buzz. Spontaneous word of mouth, or buzz, is free, can reach consumers isolated from all other media, and unlike conventional media, consumers tend to trust it. Marketers find it very hard to predict buzz let alone generate it on demand. However when it works, undercover marketing does exactly that: an ideal consumer from the example above will not only begin using that product themselves, but will also tell their friends about it, inciting a planned viral marketing campaign that looks spontaneous.

It is the consumer’s sense that this recommendation was spontaneous and unsolicited, and the resulting feeling that “one good turn deserves another”, that drives the buzz. So, the “bought and paid for” aspect of the transaction must remain hidden. Overall, the person doing the marketing must look and sound like a peer of their target audience without any ulterior motive for endorsing the product—employees of the company cannot do undercover marketing, nor can celebrities (except possibly to other celebrities).

If marketers fail to hide their vested interest in selling a product, they run considerable risk of backlash. Cases where consumers have found out they have been manipulated into liking the product, they generally become angry at the marketer (and by association that product) over being misled. This indignation has led some to apply more derogatory names to undercover marketing, such as roach baiting, likening the products marketed this way to poison. In some cases, the amount of buzz generated by a failed campaign can exceed that of a successful one, only with the opposite of the desired result.

When targeting consumers known to be consistent Internet users, undercover marketers have taken a significant interest in leveraging Internet chat rooms and forums. In these settings, people tend to perceive everyone as peers, the semi-anonymity reduces the risk of being found out, and one marketer can personally influence a large number of people. During the dot com boom at the turn of the century, stock promoters frequently used chat rooms to create a buzz and drive up the price of a stock.

Whatever the risks, undercover marketing only requires a small investment for a large potential pay off. It remains a cheap and effective way of generating buzz, especially in markets such as tobacco and alcohol where media-savvy target consumers have become increasingly resistant or inaccessible to other forms of advertising.

Sony Ericsson used stealth marketing in 2002 when they hired 60 actors in 10 major cities, and had them “accost strangers and ask them: Would you mind taking my picture?” The actor then handed the stranger a brand new picture phone while talking about how cool the new device was. “And thus an act of civility was converted into a branding event.” (Taken from Walker, Rob. The Hidden (In Plain Sight) Persuaders. New York Times Magazine; Dec 5, 2004; New York Times pg. 68)

Rumour has it that, in 2003, Canon Inc. did something similar when they sent out couples to Staten Island and Battery Park who were dressed and acting like Japanese tourists, who would randomly ask passers-by to take their photos. They would hand them the newest Canon camera, and the target would subconsciously learn how easy, smart, and fun it was to use the camera.
The topic of undercover marketing is explored as part of the 2003 documentary film, The Corporation.

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