digital pr marketing Web/Tech

Fake viral (buzz) marketing in UK will be illegal from May 26th

Almost. According to Revolution magazine, the worthies at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising are warning that: “commercial communications via the internet will become more strictly regulated and in some cases illegal when new rulings come into force from late May.”

I checked the date of the news story – April 2nd – so no apparent April fool joke here.

The nub of the IPA claim is that within the new Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, there is a clause which makes the following criminal offences:

  1. Seeding positive messages about a brand in a blog without making it clear that the message has been created by, or on behalf of, the brand.
  2. Using “buzz marketing” specialists to communicate with potential consumers in social situations without disclosing that they are acting as brand ambassadors.
  3. Seeding viral ads on the internet in a manner that implies you are a simple member of the public.

Marina Palomba, the IPA’s legal director, is quoted as saying: “If advertisers and their agencies ignore the ethics of responsible advertising, the damage to the advertising and marketing industry generally will be considerable, undermining all commercial messages, their effectiveness and the self regulatory systems.”

She advises that agencies and marketing teams should assess their activities and whether they comply with the new regulations to avoid potential fines or even prison sentences. (My emphasis).

Let’s examine those points further:

1. What exactly is “seeding” a positive message in a blog anyway? (And does that mean seeding in a newsgroup or other form of digital communication is OK?). Overt comment puffery is easy to spot – the perpetrators will surely damage their brand on their own without any need for regulation. Or do they mean paying bloggers to say nice things about a product? Again, if we’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it’s that nothing stays secret long on the Interweb. If anyone was foolish enough to take the vendor’s shilling without declaring their interest (and get caught), then the approbrium heaped upon them would surely be punishment enough.

2. This presumably refers to stunts like British Airways hiring actors to pretend to be happy (and loudly talking) BA customers in public places like the Heathrow Express. Again, is anyone really taken in by this? And given the utter PR disaster that is Terminal 5, would anyone seriously believe anyone who made a highly positive comment about BA in public (or private)?

3. The phrase “simple member of the public” really annoyed me. It suggests that seeding a viral by implying I’m an intelligent member of the public is perfectly acceptable. More irritating is the underlying message that Joe Public is a poor dumb ass who needs protecting from these clever, evil viral marketeers.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t in any way condone people who fail to make appropriate vested interest disclosures. At the same time, I don’t believe legislation on this matter (or scaremongering by the IPA) is the answer either.

The new regulations come into effect on 26 May 2008.

I’m off to write some disclaimers.