Astroturf “grassroots” campaigns: the art of manufactured networks

Strangers or friends advocating a product or a cause may not always be expressing their true value.  And the meteoric rise of undiscovered products or people may be less organic, and more orchestrated than people think.

More and more examples have occurred recently, including an interesting article in today’s WSJ about rising singer Marie Digby (link at end of post), reveal corporate interests promoting ‘fake’ or astroturf marketing campaigns.  (Other examples are LonelyGirl15 on You Tube which professed to be a home-schooled sheltered teen and proved to be a Creative Artists New Zealand-based professional actress Jessica Rose looking to sign a movie deal; or many of the ‘environmental’ grassroots campaigns that profess to be anti-environmentalist but are in reality corporate fronts.)

Jonathan Ressler, a Marketing Specialist, recently profiled in the documentary, The Corporation, explains how companies pay individuals to play up how great various brands are to their friends, pretending that they are just telling their friends from the heart, not out of self-interest.  [This has been called undercover marketing, stealth marketing, covert marketing, guerilla marketing or self-interest marketing.]

These guerilla marketing campaigns may be good for raising sales of products — for the moment we trust our friends’ recommendations more than corporate pitches — but as more horror stories emerge of shills pretending to be ‘friends’, it runs the risk of having all of us trust our friends and their opinions less.   (‘Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!’)  Or a more just market punishment is if shills who are uncovered are ostracized by their friends for trading their social networks for lucre, but that presumes that people will know who is shilling.

The NYT magazine recently featured an interesting profile of Rick Rubin, the new president cum-yogi of Columbia Records. In it, Rubin mentions his amazement with Paul Potts (the British mechanic who hides an amazing silky baritone voice).  Potts has become a YouTube sensation after his win on the British equivalent of American Idol (with over 20 million YouTube views).  But the article makes one wonder how big a role Columbia Records played a part in stoking his ‘grassroots’ viral marketing campaign, especially since Rubin is so savvy about using young employees to create more buzz.

Full story at Download This: YouTube Phenom Has a Big Secret — Singer Marie Digby Isn’t Quite What She Appears; ‘Make People Like Me’  (WSJ, 9/6/07, Ethan Smith and Peter Lattman, p. A1).  Article highlights follow:

“A 24-year-old singer and guitarist named Marie Digby has been hailed as proof that the Internet is transforming the world of entertainment.

“What her legions of fans don’t realize, however, is that Ms. Digby’s career demonstrates something else: that traditional media conglomerates are going to new lengths to take advantage of the Internet’s ability to generate word-of-mouth buzz.

“Ms. Digby’s simple, homemade music videos of her performing popular songs have been viewed more than 2.3 million times on YouTube. Her acoustic-guitar rendition of the R&B hit ‘Umbrella’ has been featured on MTV’s program ‘The Hills’ and is played regularly on radio stations in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland, Ore. Capping the frenzy, a press release last week from Walt Disney Co.’s Hollywood Records label declared: “Breakthrough YouTube Phenomenon Marie Digby Signs With Hollywood Records.”

Ms. Digby feigned surprise at her marketing rise in an Aug. 16 MySpace blog entry and never mentioned the backing of Hollywood records or the role they played in her rise.  Digby admitted in interviews that she left out Hollywood Records because “I didn’t feel like it was something that was going to make people like me.”  But Hollywood Records played an integral part, advising Ms. Digby, 18 months before her meteoric rise to feature video covers of popular hits by Maroon 5 or Nelly Furtado so that searches for these songs would ‘discover her’, they bought her an Apple computer and software and advised her on how to get her songs online.  And it was the posting of a cover of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ that launched her.  Hollywood Records distributed high-quality versions of her songs to radio stations and arranged a deal with iTunes.

When radio stations ‘found’ her and invited her onto the shows, she played the rube, saying  “‘I’m usually the listener calling in, you know, just hoping that I’m going to be the one to get that last ticket to the Star Lounge with [pop star] John Mayer!’ ” The WSJ reported that station programming executives “now acknowledge they had booked Ms. Digby’s appearance through Hollywood Records, and were soon collaborating with the label to sell ‘Umbrella’ as a single on iTunes.” [The radio station didn't discover her through random YouTube searches of others' hits.]  She later faked the similar part of a discovered diamond in the rough when on Carson Daly’s show.

The WSJ notes that “at a concert last week at a Los Angeles nightclub called the Hotel Cafe, Ms. Digby played to a sold-out crowd of young fans. Even with the club’s handful of tables reserved for Hollywood Records executives and their guests, Ms. Digby continued to play the ingenue. Introducing ‘Umbrella,’ Ms. Digby told the audience: ‘I just turned on my little iMovie, and here I am!’ “

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3 responses to “Astroturf “grassroots” campaigns: the art of manufactured networks

  1. Thanks for the mention. All stealth marketing is not bad and in fact you do it every day. Granted I pay people to do it, but you know as well as I do if someone does not really believe in a product or service, they can not convince you they like it. it would be like someone trying to convince me to buy cat food. I don’t have a cat. No mater how persuasive they are, I will never buy cat food. Bottom line is you need to give consumers enough credit that they can decide what they need and what they don’t.

  2. Bill Hallahan

    The Wall Street Journal article was wrong. There was no deception. The article, using the term, “feigning amateur status” attempted to disparage Marie Digby, however, there is no indication she feigned anything. By all appearances, Marie Digby has always been herself.

    The article stated:
    —–
    “Ms. Digby’s MySpace and YouTube pages don’t mention Hollywood Records. Until last week, a box marked “Type of Label” on her MySpace Music page said, “None.”
    —–
    However, she had joined MySpace in 2004, roughly 2 years before she was signed, and she merely didn’t bother to update a setting, and she’d probably forgotten that setting even existed. I signed up for a MySpace music page, and it could even be missed when first signing up. And, since months after she recorded her CD, there was no indication it was ever going to be released, I wouldn’t expect that changing her MySpace status to signed would cross her mind, even if she knew about it.
    The article went on to state:
    —–
    “After inquiries from The Wall Street Journal, the entry was changed to “Major,” though the label still is not named.”
    —–
    Why name a record label when there is no indication they are going to release your CD? (Note, the CD, titled “Unfold”, finally came out on April 8, 2008. Buy it, it’s great).

    The Wall Street Journal article also contained:
    —–
    ‘Most of Ms. Digby’s new fans seem pleased to believe that they discovered an underground sensation. A YouTube user posting a message in response to a cover of Linkin Park’s “What I’ve Done” wrote, “you truely have talent! get urself out there…if u really wanted im positive u could land some sick record deals!! id buy a CD 4 sure!”‘
    —–
    In fact, the vast majority of the posts were about her music, and not about “discovering” her. For most of us viewers, a huge number of people had already seen her videos when we found her, which were posted long before the WSJ article, so we could hardly claim to have ‘discovered her.’

    The term “feigning amateur status”, used in the WSJ article seems completely ridiculous to anyone who has watched all of her videos.

    Consider the following quote in the article, with the subtitle, “The Lucky Nobody”.
    —–
    “As Ms. Digby’s star rose, other media outlets played along. When Los Angeles adult-contemporary station KYSR-FM, which calls itself “Star 98.7,” interviewed Ms. Digby in July, she and the disc jockey discussed her surprising success. “We kind of found her on YouTube,” the DJ, known as Valentine, said. Playing the lucky nobody, Ms. Digby said: “I’m usually the listener calling in, you know, just hoping that I’m going to be the one to get that last ticket to the Star Lounge with [pop star] John Mayer!” The station’s programming executives now acknowledge they had booked Ms. Digby’s appearance through Hollywood Records, and were soon collaborating with the label to sell “Umbrella” as a single on iTunes.”
    —–
    Note the use of the term, “played along” as if the stations were doing something sinister. Note, Marie Digby had not had a CD released at this time, and the radio station’s DJs announced, over the air, that they found Marie Digby on youtube. And, what Marie Digby said is so totally credible that to cast it in disparaging terms seems incredibly cynical, even for someone in New York City! Note, Marie Digby claims the idea of posting videos on youtube was her own idea, and the radio station, and Carson Daly, both claim they found Marie Digby on youtube. Sinister? Hardly. Read the last quote again, and think.

    While I dislike the term, ‘nobody,’ because everyone is ‘somebody,’ nonetheless, Marie Digby was known to few people other than family or friends before the youtube video, so, if Marie Digby was playing a part, it was herself. Again, to disparage someone based on supposition, which also require manufacturing a nonexistent conspiracy, is beyond disingenuous. I would say, given the factual error, and the complete lack of research, the Wall Street Journal reporters who covered this were “feigning professional status,” however, that might be a bit harsh. After all, there is a special term, “Investigative Journalism!” Clearly not all journalist meet that standard.

    Marie Digby has posted that a Wall Street reporter talked to Marie Digby for about an hour, but they never asked the questions that would have cleared this up. Instead, they took her response, which merely meant that her signed status wasn’t relevant to her goals (and frankly, would have seemed ridiculous in the videos), as meaning she was hiding it.

    There were radio station interviews, before the WSJ article, where she mentioned being signed. If she were hiding it, she would have hid it there too.

    In most of her videos, she didn’t speak unless singing. Her personal business is her business, and nobody else’s. The WSJ article took an irrelevant omission, and turned it into a conspiracy.

    I gather Marie Digby’s family is rather well off. She never mentioned that in her videos either. I wouldn’t say she was, “feigning middle class status,” but I’m sure some people would! Sad!

    http://www.kineda.com/marie-digby-another-star-born-on-youtube/#comment-144540

  3. Bill Hallahan

    By the way, Marie Digby claims that posting youtube videos was her idea. I saw some blog post that the record company promoted that idea, however, there is no evidence for that, and knowing the full sequence of events, that idea seems unlikely in the extreme. I believe Marie Digby.

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