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July 27, 2009

Accentuate the positive and minimize the negative is the way to manage reputations online.  For a good example of what NOT TO DO consider Lifestyle Lift. This facelift company was recently fined $300,000 by New York State for flooding the internet with fake positive reviews about itself according to the Register. This is apparently the first time in the US that a business has been punished with “Astroturf” marketing.

What is Astroturfing?
According to Wiki it is a campaign seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior – hence the reference to artificial grass.  In business, astroturfing is one form of stealth marketing (also known as buzz marketing).

Buzz marketing is carries a possible fine of up to £5000, and two years imprisonment in Europe under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.  So posing as a consumer and posting laudatory comments about one’s own business online, or about one’s clients business (where an agency is responsible for marketing the business’ services) is unacceptable because such advertising misleads consumers.  However, in the US there are no laws against it.

That is not to say there are no sanctions.  If marketers fail to hide the campaign, they run considerable risk of backlash. In cases where consumers discover they have been manipulated into liking the product, they generally become angry at the marketer (and by association that product).  So, when Belkin’s Mike Bayard was discovered to have posted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, asking for people to write a positive five star review for Belkin’s products), it caused the company embarrassment.

The Lifestyle Lifts case is a US first.  Even so, many, for example, Boingboing consider that the company got off lightly given the extent of its activities in aggressively guarding its online reputation.  Apart from litigation, it also instructed staffers to post glowing reviews, comments and testimonials pretending to be clients.