Malpractice in the marketplace

Malpractice in the marketplace

On 20 February, The Guardian carried a blog post titled “India’s dodgy paid news phenomenon". The issue focalized when several complaints were lodged with the Election Commission (EC) over the alleged use of paid news during electoral campaigns. The EC then asked the Press Council of India to frame a definition of paid news. The term covers several strategies adopted by candidates to present propaganda “dressed up as a genuine news story".

Apart from politics, there are other fields such as marketing, public relations and product promotion where the consumer is the loser. The term “astroturfing" was introduced a few years ago to represent certain murky activities in politics and commerce. Astroturfers use the Internet to create the impression that a party or ideology or product enjoys grassroots support. The fact is even these are controlled and orchestrated by special interest groups. An often-cited instance of astroturfing is the Tea Party protests against US President Barack Obama’s policies. The protesters claimed that it was a spontaneous uprising, but critics said that the project had been well funded and promoted by a major TV channel. Britain has implemented a European Union directive that makes astroturfing illegal.

Many of the stratagems are centuries old. A shill, for instance, is a person who helps another person or organisation sell products, while remaining anonymous. As accomplices of auctioneers, the shill mingles with bidders, raises the bid amount to a desired level and then disappears. Shills are active in the publishing business and furnish product reviews that induce people to buy. A BBC report (The perils of five-star reviews) in June 2009 showed how a publishing giant had offered $25 to academics to give one of its textbooks a five-star rating.

Another new word on the list is flog, coined by blending fake and blog. In the news on 13 December was a company named Handpicked Media, which was accused of rewarding bloggers for favourable reviews of the products of its customers. The UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) wanted the company to state clearly whether the blog comment had been paid for. Under the consumer protection regulations, any act that “is likely to materially distort the economic behaviour of the average consumer with regard to the product" should be deemed an unfair commercial practice.

The tourism and travel industry is another fertile field for shilling. Travel writers have written about the perils of depending on online reviews. They say if there are only a few reviews about a place, they might well be planted. If after a string of low ratings, there is a spate of five star reviews, the customer must pause as fraud can be suspected.

Till recently, the UK Advertising Standards Authority had jurisdiction over traditional TV marketing and paid-for advertisements online. Now, the regulator has been empowered to police social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which have turned into major promotional tools.

Celebrity tweets as well as celebrity endorsements on TV can influence customers directly, and it is important to prevent the customer from being exploited. Celebrities who do their shopping in Paris or London can be seen endorsing products from India, which they would not touch with a barge pole. OFT has ruled that such promotional content should clearly state that the endorsement has been paid for. Guidelines in the US are more stringent: celebrities who get paid to praise products in their tweets are required to include the abbreviations “ad" or “spon" (for advertisement and sponsored, respectively).

The vocabulary of marketing malpractice is expanding, and soon words such as ballot stuffing, sock puppet and meat puppet will gain currency.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

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