Pic courtesy Sheeshoo
Your word for the day is Astroturfing.
It’s using devious means to create the impression of a ‘grassroots’ movement, but on closer inspection, that bright green grass is purely synthetic. There are thousands of ways to do it: fake comments on blogs, fake bloggers paid for by brands, ‘Citizen’s Action’ groups supported by corporate sponsors, the list goes on.
A classic example is Al Gore’s Penguin Army, an ‘amateur’ Youtube satire of An Inconvenient Truth. Nothing wrong with that - nobody should be able to claim immunity from satire.
Then a journalist, following a strong smell of fish, discovered that it wasn’t made by amateurs at all. It came from a Washington PR company whose clients included General Motors and Exxon.
Astroturfing is mostly regarded as highly unethical. PR industry bodies around the world will expel organizations caught doing it.
The web tends to self-police astroturfing. The most common way to get caught is posting complimentary comments about your company on blogs and forums. Many people who do this don’t know that it’s simple to view the IP address of each comment, so it can be tracked right back to your corporate headquarters. Then you’ll be set upon by an on-line lynch mob.
But what of presentation astroturfing? Using audience plants to ask sympathetic questions and say nice things about you?
It’s certainly a practice that’s been with us since the dawn of speechmaking. It’s so widespread in government speeches that for nearly a century the Australian parliament has had a special name for it: the Dorothy Dix question. Named after the legendary American advice columnist, the Dorothy Dixer comes from someone in your own party, and goes something like this:
Does the Prime Minister have any new figures that illustrate the government’s success in pulling Australia out of the Global Financial Crisis faster than any other country on Earth?
As a matter of fact, I have just received some figures which deliver in terms of a remarkable degree of programmatic specificity our success in…
Questions like these can consume days and days of expensive legislative time, to no particular benefit. But what of regular presentations?
I think it’s best to follow your own ethical compass on this one. There’s nothing wrong with getting someone to ask the first question in Q&A, because it breaks the ice and makes it more comfortable for others to follow.
I’ve also seen some nice presentations where a fake audience member stands up and gives the presenter a brutal dressing down for their stupid opinions. It shakes the audience out of dreamland and adds a thrilling edge of danger to the whole show. As long as they’re revealed as a plant at the end, that’s just creative use of theater.
Where it’s wrong is if you ask someone to talk about a fake positive experience that they’ve had with your product. On a moral level, that’s lying. On a practical level, it’s also almost impossible to do unless your plant has Oscar-worthy acting talent. Having seen a few of these over the years, usually it just comes out sounding embarrassing, a mutant hybrid of real language and marketing-mandatories:
“Yeah, I’ve tried these apps myself, and I’ve found them to be totally cool and edgy. For my complete range of app needs!”
Honesty is always much easier to manage.