Thursday, October 20, 2016

Paying for promotion can be ethical, astroturfing is not

Maygan Beeler

As a strategic communication student, I believe there is value in paying for promoted content. I view news organizations, reporters, and others who are influential in my target area as important marketing channels. I don’t see a problem with offering to pay key influencers for reviewing or mentioning my company or product, as long as one significant criterion is met: transparency.

Paying for promotion—and disclosing the deal

In the case of commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid $240,000 by the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, Williams was not transparent with his audience. Once the contract was made known, he explained that he “wanted to do it because it was something I believe in.” This is not enough. If an influencer is being paid by any company or government entity, it is the duty of that influencer to be completely forthcoming about the arrangement.  The audience must be given the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not to trust the message the influencer is promoting.

In contrast, BuzzFeed, known for large amounts of native advertising content, warns readers alert enough to check an icon just below the headline if the content is sponsored. This BuzzFeed listicle was created to promote HBO and it’s season three premiere of Girls. Though the disclosure might not attract the attention of every reader, it is present, it is at the top of the story, and it clearly makes known the outlet’s vested interest in writing the story.


Another transparency issue comes in the form of “online astroturfing,” or establishing fake grassroots campaigns that aim to create the illusion of mass support for a policy or corporate agenda.

In 2011, Big Oil lobbyists created 14 twitter profiles to praise tar sands extraction in hopes of drumming up more support around the practice, or at least making it appear that a significant number of people already to support it. The profiles were discovered to be fake when 15 accounts simultaneously tweeted “#tarsands the truth is out” and linked to the American Petroleum Institute’s web page about tar sands. After further investigation, each of the profiles was found to only tweet positive messages about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Astroturfing is the antithesis of transparency. It aims to purposely deceive the audience and drive their behavior by creating a false perception that a large number of people support a policy or corporate agenda. This practice isn’t ethical and shouldn’t be used as a form of promotion.

The major difference between the ethical promotion of products, policies or company agendas and non-ethical promotion of these ideas is transparency.  It’s irrational to think lobbying won’t continue, or that companies won’t pay to promote their content. Audiences should, however, expect to be made aware of these transactions so that they can feel comfortable that they have all information necessary to make the best decisions. Democracy is based on trust. If audiences can’t trust the source of their news, our system of democracy is threatened.

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