December 14, 2006
In Over Their Heads? Sony Finds Out That Astroturf Marketing Can Quickly Put You Out in the Weeds

When will people get the picture? Astroturf campaigns, as they are often called, make people mad. While there is some fun in playing with avatars and some degree of skill in trickery in taking on aspects of one's biography that may not be "true" in online spaces, there's a difference between my pretending to be Duane Gill in a chatroom and what Sony has apparently done. (By the way, as a complete aside, people actually believed my Duane Gill impersonation as a teenager, usually with the argument, "He must be telling the truth. What idiot would waste their time pretending to be Duane Gill???)

Blake Snow with Joystiq All I Want for Xmas is a PSP, in which two kids are trying to convince their parents to buy them the game console. Snow questions their authenticity just from the perhaps too stereotypical behavior of the kids. "The site only uses lower case letters, always references 'two' as '2,' embraces hip phrases like 'here's the deal,' publishes fake user-generated comments like "this is the best site ever" under the alias of True Gamer, and posts homemade rap videos full of stage props and trite 'izzies.'" He says of their YouTube video, "It just screams street cred."

The problem is that there's not much credibility at all in the fact that the video is posted on a domain owned by Zipatoni, a marketing company. Snow's words are actually pretty acerbic and at least sarcastic..."Dense marketers usually do an excellent job in fooling ignorant customers with such authenticity." Searching out the domain ownership, etc. Now, THAT's another good example of grassroots journalism.

And how does Sony react? Well, they are like those villains on Scooby Doo, when they inevitably have that mask ripped off of them at the end of the episode. So, here is Sony, in their best Miner 49er impersonation:

Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn't a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP.

Probably should have thought of that BEFORE attempting this stunt...but what do you do when you're caught red-handed?

We should thank the people over at Something Awful in the discussion forums for riding their Mystery Machine to the rescue, particularly user Babylonian for initially questioning the video's authenticity. By the way...look these comments over and see what the repercussions for a boneheaded move looks like...Such as squidgee, who writes, "Jesus christ, not only is it a blatant ad but it's completely retarded." They would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those stupid kids.

And, while Blake gives them props for fessing up, he points out the permanent damage to their credibility in the process:

Funky fresh? Confusing cleverness with deceit? You're still not getting it. Regardless, kudos for admitting to the mistake, but an apology to your customers while leaving up critical comments would have been better. Also, just know your products got a little less "cool" in the process. Think of it as consumer restitution.

The folks at Penny Arcade had some fun with a comic about it, and Tycho writes:

We need to distinguish between "viral" marketing and "guerilla" marketing. The reality is that no agency can create viral marketing, this is the sole domain of the consumer. Viral marketing is what happens when a campaign works - when we allow their message to travel via our own superefficient conduits. Perhaps it is entertaining on its own terms, divorced from the message. Perhaps it is a game or a story, like I Love Bees or other ARGs, where we take ownership in it. What distinguishes this from Guerilla Marketing is that we are aware of the message. When we are not aware of the message, or when the agents of the message misrepresent themselves, we call this "deception."

Aleks Krotoski at The Guardian questions whether this might be some sort of indication that Sony's finger on the pulse of pop culture is slipping:

In the past, Sony's award-winning PlayStation brand ads were celebrated for their creativity and innovation. Their recent campaigns, including an ill-advised series of graffiti art, suggests that they are having difficulty getting a handle on the bottom-up, community driven opportunities made possible with social software.

But Sony and Zipatoni shouldn't feel bad. At least they have company in the gutter. That doghouse may be small, but it's better than no house at all. Edelman and Wal-Mart, move it on over.