After touting Wikipedia image campaign, North Face quickly apologizes

The retailer’s team in Brazil teamed up with an agency to game the free online resource so marketing images would show up first in Google Image search results. Backlash came swiftly.

It’s a case of being penny wise, trust foolish.

PR and marketing pros are constantly struggling to produce big results for their organizations and clients without breaking their budgets.

The North Face’s Brazil team and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, a division of the Leo Burnett agency, found a way to make a splash—getting to the top of Google Image search results—seemingly for free.

However, it left both The North Face and Leo Burnett with a hefty deficit in consumers’ trust. That’s because the agency gamed Wikipedia by replacing the photos for several popular tourist destinations, including Huayna Picchu in Peru and Guarita State Park in Brazil, with product-placement images.

The Guardian reported:

In April, the ad agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, filled Wikipedia entries of Brazilian landmarks with professional shots featuring the brand, with the intention of causing Google to display the same images in the top few search results.

The photos uploaded by the agency prominently featured models wearing North Face gear in the foreground of the shot. The substitution was only noticed when the agency proudly revealed what it had done in a lavishly produced video shared by industry publication AdAge.

The Drum uploaded the video to YouTube:

Ad Age reported:

“Our mission is to expand our frontiers so that our consumers can overcome their limits. 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,” explained Fabricio Luzzi, CEO of The North Face Brazil in a statement.

Wikipedia editors quickly took down the images. It didn’t take long for backlash to occur on Twitter and in headlines.

The Verge called the stunt “a yikes of the highest order.” Fast Company’s staff editor dubbed it a “total f***-up.The Drum called the move an “’unethical’ Wikipedia product placement campaign” and NAG Magazine’s headline read: “The North Face wins for douchebag genius marketing stunt of the year.”

On Wednesday, Wikipedia tweeted a thread calling the PR and marketing stunt “akin to defacing public property” and accusing the outdoor retailer of taking advantage of consumers’ trust:

 

 

 

 

By Wednesday evening, The North Face apologized in a tweet and promised to train both its employees and agency partners on Wikipedia’s policies:

However, many journalists and social media users were skeptical of the company’s apology. The backlash intensified as the partner agency issued a response.

Ad Age reported:

From Leo Burnett Tailor Made’s original statement, it seems the agency was anticipating such a reaction to the North Face effort all along. In stunts like these, the ensuing controversy and attention around it can be part of the overall campaign goal and strategy.

… Following The North Face’s apology, Leo Burnett Tailor Made issued its own statement: “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.”

Several journalists pointed out that the campaign served to erode consumers’ trust, regardless of whether the agency was aiming to stoke controversy.

Fast Company’s staff editor Jeff Beer wrote:

… 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.

… Both [apologies], 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.

… 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.

Inc. contributor Jason Aten wrote:

Marketers often get a bad reputation for shading the truth or presenting things in the most favorable light, but The North Face went even further than that. They gamed a system that depends on the trust of everyone involved.

In a world of “fake news,” people aren’t interested in the brands they love trying to pull one over on them. Which is what The North Face tried to do. They tried to make it look like their brand was organically associated with all of these amazing outdoor locations, when in fact it was all staged.

It doesn’t matter how much attention you can generate for your brand if people don’t trust you. When you try to take shortcuts or cheat, the trust you built over time fades in a moment. When you try to fake your way to the top of Google search results, you end up at the bottom of the trust barrel.

The move might have netted The North Face (and Leo Burnett) a plethora of headlines and online conversations, but they’re overwhelmingly negative.

There is also now a record of the stunt on Wikipedia, and several of The North Face’s images have been retained, but its logo has been scrubbed from each one.

Ad Age reported:

By Thursday morning, the brand’s Wikipedia page was updated with a “Controversies” section. The text now reads, “In May 2019, The North Face’s advertising agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made used Wikipedia to try to promote their products in Google search results as part of an advertisement campaign. Their actions violated Wikipedia’s term of use on undisclosed paid editing.”

Though the “Controversies” section has been removed from The North Face’s Wikipedia page, the stunt was added to another page on the website titled: “Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia.”

The Guardian reported:

… [S]ome good has come of the campaign. In order to upload images to Wikipedia, users must allow their work to be edited and reused so that the free nature of the encyclopedia can be preserved. That means that savvy editors have been hard at work cropping The North Face logo out of otherwise perfectly usable landscape shots, leaving them available to use on the free encyclopaedia forever – without offering free advertising to a clothing company.

What would you advise as next steps for The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, PR Daily readers?

COMMENT

One Response to “After touting Wikipedia image campaign, North Face quickly apologizes”

    Ted Kitterman says:

    Is this just a case of a marketing campaign being too clever by half? It blows my mind that an agency and major retail brand could court backlash in such a brazen fashion.

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