Sockpuppet marketing sounds cute and fun, immediately invoking scenes from children’s television. (Lamb Chop, anyone?) Some companies actually use sockpuppets in video marketing, like this 2012 campaign with the Ford Focus Spokespuppet.
But in the ad industry, sockpuppet marketing is much more sinister and linked with similar deceptive practices, like astroturfing. Basically, marketers that talk about this are referring to the use of one or more fake identities (sockpuppets) to promote a product or otherwise sway public opinion.
Google Guru Matt Cutts Weighs In
Perhaps one of the most well-known online voices, Google’s Matt Cutts, posted a short video that explores sockpuppet marketing in a nicely sarcastic monologue. In his example of the soy candle industry’s ugly side, Cutts notes that while sockpuppet marketing appears to be a benign annoyance to consumers, it can be an epic business fail. Cutts cites one of the most clear-cut examples of a legal penalty applied to sockpuppet marketing, where a New York court awarded a $300,000 settlement based on this kind of deceit.
"If you’re marketing online, people take that as seriously as if you’re marketing in all other kinds of media. So, if you’re doing things that you would feel ashamed of…then, you might want to reconsider the technique that you’re using," says Cutts.
The $300,000 Sockpuppet
Although Cutts never mentions the name of the company, a moderate bit of Internet sleuthing leads to details about the lawsuit: Lifestyle Lift Holding, Inc. v. Real Self, Inc. According to this 2009 New York Times article, Lifestyle Lift allegedly created and used fake online identities to hawk plastic surgery procedures, demanding that its employees "pretend they were satisfied customers." Andrew M. Cuomo, then New York state’s attorney general, and his office got involved; enter the $300,000 fine. This prominent case is often cited as an example of how sockpuppet marketing actually leads to actual prosecution.
This is just one of the reasons why Cutts and others are telling companies to knock it off, while warning company employees that they might be entering dubious territory by following these kinds of commands from above.
Beyond the Lifestyle Lift case, other kinds of online details reveal what happens when someone responds to sockpuppet marketing. For example, take a look at these informative pages from 4Structures.com, a business involved in the structured settlement industry.
Along with helpful descriptions of terms like whinger and troglodyte, these long text entries show how a company responds to sockpuppet marketing that attacks its livelihood. Reading through this, there is a sense of how a lawyer might build a case – collecting data and even documenting IP addresses or other vitals to try to determine a writer’s actual identity. These pages also include real-life examples of CYA actions when companies discover they’re under the spotlight.
Sockpuppetry in Politics
It’s reasonable to assume that if these shenanigans are taking place in the private sector, they’re also going on in politics. This 2008 video shows how David Beckwith, a senior staffer for Sen. John Cornyn III (R-Texas), got in hot water for posting deceptive sockpuppet comments in an attempt to influence the electorate. This Texas KVUE video includes responses to Beckwith’s inflammatory online alter ego – "Buck Smith" – and his boss performing a little plausible deniability.
Other types of legal charges facing sockpuppeteers relate to a commercial industry’s laws and standards. For example, Whole Food Market’s co-CEO, John Mackey, was outed by the FTC in 2007 after he posted 1,000 anonymous comments to highly trafficked websites under "Rahodeb," his alter ego. In this and other cases in the financial industry, legal consequences can come in the form of reviews by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), or lawsuits filed by competitors.
WikiSockpuppets: An Emerging Controvery
Some of the latest sockpuppet marketing news is from the wide world of Wikipedia. In October 2013, the media reported about a new sockpuppet investigation where Wikipedia is trying to figure out who is behind the deceptive and misleading editing of dozens of pages.
Reports from Canada’s CBC News reveal one of the big suspects: WikiPR, a company that promises to help clients handle their Wikipedia pages. Journalist Simon Owens, speaking on CBC, talks about how Wiki-PR works on behalf of its 12,000 clients.
According to Owens, Wiki-PR offers to "make edits stick" and provides "crisis editing" to help companies handle bad PR in ways that explicitly go against Wikipedia’s conventional neutrality rules. Owens says Wiki-PR claims to have Wiki posters and admins in its pocket, which could explain why many of its posts are not pulled by managing editors.
At the heart of the Wikipedia controversy is the general idea of what Wikipedia is. The site was started as an objective, nonprofit fact provider. Now, companies are seeing Wikipedia as a reputation management" issue. But should they be able to change content about their operations at will? And should they be able to use sockpuppeteers to do it?
Policing the Wild West
Each of these examples shows that "law and order," as it is applied to U.S. commerce, has a stake in protecting objectivity, and that as the Internet and other technologies evolve, different kinds of law enforcement and legal entities will take aim at types of sockpuppet marketing and other deceptive practices. During the Internet’s infancy, we couldn’t have conceived of penalties, like job losses or jail, for creating fake social media profiles or "anonymous" forum posts. As the Internet continues to consume our lives, legal authorities will intensify their scrutiny of online activities to determine exactly how to handle sockpuppet marketers and their online strawmen.