Was a heartwarming blog of small town America as seen from an RV parked in Wal-Mart lots more than it seemed? And what is the link between this case and a recent ASA decision against talkSPORT? In her latest ‘Letter from America’, Mel Geffert of Osborne Clarke’s Palo Alto office reports.
Topic: Branded content
Who: Wal-Mart, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and talkSPORT
Where: USA and UK
When: November/December 2006
Prominent brands on both sides of the pond were criticised for being behind fake blogs or "flogs."
In the US a blog appeared online about an ordinary couple in America who travelled across the US in their RV and stayed each night in a Wal-Mart car park. The blog described their heart warming stories of life in the USA in towns that have a Wal-Mart.
It turned out, however, that this "ordinary couple" were in fact a journalist and a photographer paid for by Wal-Mart's PR agency to create a particular image around the Wal-Mart brand and generate publicity. It worked – the image was created, and Wal-Mart itself has found itself at the centre of a public outrage in the USA that something as honest and straightforward as the blogging community should be used in such as way.
talkSPORT blasted by ASA
In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint in respect of a weblog on a number of football club related websites.
The blog started "Fellas, have you heard what talksport radio are doing this season. They are recruiting a fan from every club in the premiership and football league to become the voice for their club on their station."
A reader complained that it was not clear that the weblog was placed by talkSPORT radio.
The radio station said that weblog posts on third part sites had not been part of the planned marketing strategy for this initiative. The blog complained of had been posted by a member of staff acting independently. They said they had now taken steps to ensure employees were aware that such actions were not permitted.
The ASA acknowledged that the flog had not been authorised, but nevertheless because it had not been clearly identified as advertising, clauses 7.1 (Misleading) and 22.1 ("Marketers, publishers and owners of other media should ensure that marketing communications are designed and presented in such a way that it is clear that they are marketing communications.") had been breached.
Why this matters:
In just the last year, blogging has become a way for individuals to express their views to a global audience…and the world is indeed listening. As we reported recently Apple spotted some wayward bloggers and tried to assert their rights over these individuals. That exercise resulted in bloggers receiving court approval for their rights as journalists.
However a new and innovative use for this information channel has arisen. This should come as no surprise to us though. Research has showed the public regard blogs as the second most reliable source or information after online review sites, such as Tripadvisor. This is more than for newspapers, adverts and e-mail marketing. Why therefore should we be surprised when companies take advantage of this and create what have now been termed a "flog" – a fake blog.
Blogging ethics pledge
The USA has a trade association for the blogging community called the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). WOMMA has created a blogging ethics pledge consisting of a 5 point statement that essentially says the company giving the pledge must tell the truth. Dell has recently signed up.
The list of other members of WOMMA is impressive: Virgin Mobile, Sony, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Pfizer and DuPont all listed on the website. In the UK, there is not an equivalent organisation yet, however an organisation called Brand Science Institute based in Hamburg stated on 13 November 2006 that it intends to launch the European Word-of-Mouth Marketing Research Group so watch this space.
In the meantime the ASA has shown it is prepared to take a tough line on cases of "flogging" that come to its notice in the UK.