Why The North Face's Wikipedia marketing stunt struck a nerve

The North Face had to apologize last week after it swapped images on Wikipedia with photos featuring its products. There's a fine line between creative marketing and trickery, says journalist Jeff Beer.

Outdoor gear retailer swapped images on Wikipedia with photos featuring its products

A screenshot from a video detailing The North Face's marketing campaign 'Top of Images,' where it replaced images on Wikipedia with photos featuring its own products in order to get to the top of Google's image search results. (Leo Burnett Tailor Made)

A marketing stunt that landed The North Face in hot water with Wikipedia last week confirms "our darkest fears about advertising," according to journalist Jeff Beer.

The outdoor gear retailer swapped the images on Wikipedia entries for popular tourist destinations — such as Guarita State Park and the Cape Peninsula — with photos that featured its products. The goal, according to a video detailing the project, was to get its branded photos at the top of Google's image search results "by paying absolutely nothing just by collaborating with Wikipedia."

After the campaign was featured on AdAge, Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit behind Wikipedia, shot back in a statement, writing that it was "disappointed" to learn that The North Face and advertising agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made "unethically manipulated" its site.

"Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world."

The whole ability to edit by a community was completely taken advantage of.- Jeff Beer

It also denied the claim made in the video that The North Face collaborated with Wikipedia on the project, and described the retailer's actions as "akin to defacing public property."

These sorts of marketing stunts aren't new, and companies are always looking for creative ways to stand out and get people talking about them, according to Beer, who is a senior editor at Fast Company and recently wrote about The North Face debacle.

"There are a lot of agencies and brands thinking very, very hard about how they can do this, how they can get our attention, how they can work around the sort of media rules and just the zeitgeist, to get our attention and make us like them, and not enough are thinking about whether they should do it or not."

Wikipedia editors, who work on the site as volunteers, had already started removing and cropping The North Face's images.

Both The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, the Brazilian arm of the advertising agency, issued apologies. The North Face wrote that it had ended the campaign and would make sure its teams were better trained on the site's policies.

"We believe deeply in @Wikipedia's mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles," it wrote. 

Beer spoke to Spark host Nora Young about why The North Face's stunt struck such a nerve. Here is part of their conversation.

The strength of Wikipedia, of course, lies in the fact that anyone can edit it. What do you think is wrong with what The North Face did?

I mean we all sort of joke around — yes, anybody can edit it — and there are some funny people editing pages in funny and weird ways. But there is an incredibly strong network of editors that take the role of Wikipedia as sort of a public service very, very seriously. And what I argue in my story was basically Wikipedia has become somewhat of a public institution — not officially — but it feels like there's this social contract in a way that says: This is not a place for your advertising.

Jeff Beer is a senior editor at Fast Company, where he covers advertising, marketing and brand creativity. (Submitted by Jeff Beer)

One critic talked about how the company, or at least the ad agency behind this, "used Wikipedia's openness against it." Do you agree with that?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean the whole ability to edit by a community was completely taken advantage of. It'd be like if there was an open kitchen at work and people stocked it with coffee, and then all of a sudden you walked in and all the mugs were North Face and the coffee maker was branded North Face. What's going on? My attention is being basically bought for free and I'm not getting anything for it. 

There are ways to do something unexpected that actually make people smile or nod at the creativity being used, and there's others where you feel tricked, and I don't know where that line is exactly. It's kind of like you know it when you see it. And I think this was one of those examples where it just wasn't the time or the place to put an advertising message into that platform. 

The North Face subsequently apologized for this, but I guess the important question from The North Face's point of view is: Has this publicity helped or harmed it ultimately? What do you think?

I think in the grand scheme of things, it probably hasn't done too much. But if anything, it's certainly harmed the brand's reputation. It's like they've worked so hard to build this reputation of being a responsible brand, and in so many ways, something like this just confirms our sort of darkest fears of advertising, where someone says one thing and does another.

From the point of view of advertising and marketing, do you expect to see these kinds of stunts and the attempt to get earned media to continue?

Absolutely, yes, 100 per cent. Other advertisers are going to try to get our attention in as many ways as possible, and sometimes, they're going to cross that line.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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