We live in a commercial culture. Brands we love, brands we hate, brands we don’t care at all about are constantly flooding us with ads–tens of thousands everyday, hitting our eyeballs on screens, billboards, podcasts–just grasping to gain a millisecond of our attention in the hopes of reaching the promised land of purchase intent. Sometimes it works (see: Nike, Colin Kaepernick). Sometimes, not so much (see: Pepsi, Kendall Jenner).
The competition for our addled attention has become so intense that brands have continued to push the boundaries of where and how they reach us. This has also led to an epidemic of “earned media” strategies, which is when a brand tries to come up with an idea so cool, so epic, so unique, that it will gain attention just by the nature of its execution and get covered by the media (for free!), saving millions in ad budget costs while impressing us with sheer creativity. Think State Street’s Fearless Girl in 2017. Or 2018’s IHOP IHOb stunt (and the less inspired 2019 sequel).
But that can backfire, too, as we’ve seen this week when The North Face and its Brazilian agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made boasted about how the brand evaded Wikipedia editors to slyly embed the outdoor apparel giant’s products in high-traffic tourism pages for sites like Peru’s Huayna Picchu, Brazil’s Guarita State Park, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
The response was . . . not what the brand expected. After AdAge published a story on the effort, Wikipedia immediately called out The North Face in a Twitter thread, accusing the brand of lying about collaborating with the platform.
The video was later published by @AdAge, which said that the agency's "biggest obstacle" was in manipulating the site "without attracting attention [from] Wikipedia moderators." 3/ https://t.co/YQufk392YT
— Wikipedia (@Wikipedia) May 29, 2019
Before the backlash, Fabricio Luzzi, The North Face’s CEO in Brazil, said in a statement, “With the ‘Top of Images’ project, we achieved our positioning and placed our products in a fully contextualized manner as items that go hand in hand with these destinations, which was a total innovation.”
No, it was a total fuck-up. The Brazilian arm of the outdoor brand has since apologized, but no word from its U.S. parent, despite the story being covered globally. Overall, The North Face is actually a pretty optimistic, creative, and do-good brand. It teams with legendary photographers and athletes, like Oscar winner (and 2019 Fast Company Most Creative People honoree) Jimmy Chin and Free Solo star Alex Honnold. It lobbies to protect outdoor spaces and public lands.
But this? Let’s call this what it really is: This seemingly cheeky move is actually at the vanguard of a pernicious emerging movement that we’ll call asshole advertising. It may appear to be benign stunt marketing, but its effect is to gleefully chip away at trust on the internet in a way that confirms our darkest fears about the devious amorality of marketers.
The North Face sent a statement to Fast Company regarding the Wikipedia ads, saying, “We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and integrity–and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll strive to do better and commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on Wikipedia’s site policies.”
A brand spokesperson also said that its in the process of reaching out directly to Wikipedia to figure out the best way to “make it right.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Leo Burnett Tailor Made sent a statement saying, “Leo Burnett Tailor Made found a unique way to contribute photography of adventure destinations to their respective Wikipedia articles while achieving the goal of elevating those images in search rankings. We’re always looking for creative ways to meet consumers where they are. We’ve since learned that this effort worked counter to Wikipedia’s community guidelines. Understanding the issue, we ended the campaign. Our team has further accepted an invitation by Wikipedia to learn more about the platform and their work to share unbiased, fact-based knowledge. We look forward to working with Wikipedia to engage with them, and with respect to their network of volunteer editors, better in the future.“
Both, but particularly the agency’s response, are from the dry heave-inducing Sorry Not Sorry School of Apology. Just look at the first few seconds of that cringe-inducing case study video, a Google search of, “How can a brand be the first on Google without paying anything for it?” The goal was manipulation all along. Not just of Wikipedia, but of you and me.
Look, playing with platforms and our behavior on them can be fun and entertaining. It’s Geico subverting our expectations of a five-second YouTube pre-roll ad with its charmingly funny “Unskippable” ad. It’s Land Rover turning Instagram into a Choose Your Own Adventure game. It’s even Deadpool somehow becoming a guest editor of Good Housekeeping magazine.
But there’s a difference between a wink-wink subversive ad and blatant trickery. People like to be surprised, but they don’t want to feel manipulated. One is fun, the other is insulting. Beyond that, what this North Face scam does is encourage our already fading trust in what we see on the internet–an erosion with deep roots in advertising, whether that’s political ads on Facebook or ad scammers and bots corrupting privacy and stealing our personal data.
We are in a time when brands are responsible for not just their ads, but their behavior overall. Everything a company does–every TV ad, retail store, political donation, and tweet–becomes a part of its brand. Yet here is The North Face committing a long-held cardinal sin of advertising: Don’t make people feel stupid.
The late great comedian Bill Hicks has a famous bit on advertising that, in addition to cheerleading for the mass suicide of marketers, calls advertisers out for being “the ruiner of all things good,” imploring brands to “quit putting a dollar sign on everything on this planet.” Instead, The North Face made it their strategy.