Sock puppetry, astroturfing, and the marketing ‘shill’ game

The American plastic surgery company called Lifestyle Lift allegedly ordered employees in 32 centres to post fake positive reviews online about their $5,000 quickie facelift procedure.  But last summer, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo stepped in, investigated the company for fraud, and ordered Lifestyle Lift to pay $300,000 in penalties (roughly equivalent to lunch money for the cosmetic surgeons).

The attorney general’s office said the case is believed to be the first in the U.S. addressing a form of ‘stealth marketing’ called astroturfing.

Astroturfing refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization or company, but designed to mask their true origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behaviour. (The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass).  Astroturfing campaigns are widely considered by us PR types to be behind the growing trend towards noisy health care protests, town hall meetings, and the anti-plastic bag ban movement  in the U.S.

William Greider’s 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People, described a typical astroturf campaign run by Bonner & Associates in this way:

“It was a ‘boiler room’ operation with 300 phone lines and a sophisticated computer system, resembling the phone banks employed in election campaigns. Articulate young people sit in little booths every day, dialing around the country on a variety of public issues, searching for ‘white hat’ citizens who can be persuaded to endorse the political objectives of Mobil Oil, Dow Chemical, Miller Brewing, United States Tobacco Company, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and dozens of other clients.”  

In online astroturfing, employees like those at Lifestyle Lift pose as independent consumers to post positive web reviews about their own company.

Cuomo’s office said these phoney reviews

“ …constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law.” 

Besides the cash penalty, Lifestyle Lift was ordered to stop publishing anonymous positive reviews online.

An astonishingly stupid press release issued by the company responded:

“Lifestyle Lift regrets that earlier third-party website content did not always properly reflect and acknowledge patient comments, or always admit the content was by Lifestyle Lift.”

I don’t know about you, but I do not think I would want my cosmetic surgery performed by somebody who is astonishingly stupid. 

Part of this fraudulent advertising claimed that the Lifestyle Lift procedure left patients looking so natural that “most people look as if they’ve just returned from a nice long vacation!”  – which only makes you wonder: why not just take that $5,000 and then actually go away on a nice long vacation?

Lifestyle Lift’s president had also claimed that nasty negative Internet postings from unsatisfied patients had hurt the company’s reputation, and so he wanted to control messages posted about it online. Internal e-mails discovered by the New York State investigation showed that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in astroturfing.

This Lifestyle Lift marketing practice example, little Nags-In-Training, is also what’s called a shill.

The origin of the word shill is uncertain; many believe it might be an abbreviation of the Yiddish shillaber. Apparently, the word originally, maybe as far back as 1914, denoted a carnival worker who pretended to be a member of the audience in an attempt to elicit interest in an attraction.  Both illegal and legal gambling industries also use shills to make winning at games appear more likely than it actually is. These shills also often aid in cheating or disrupting the game if the “mark” is likely to win.

Fast forward to the computer age of marketing. In online discussion media, parties may express specific opinions in order to further the interests of an organization in which they have an interest, such as a commercial vendor or special interest group.

Sometimes shills may be used to downplay legitimate complaints posted by users on the Internet.

In fact, many well-known patient support forums are actually thinly veiled industry-sponsored sites, including:

  • DiscussDiabetes from drug giant Sanofi-Aventis has 4,000 Facebook fans and 4,000 Twitter followers
  • diabetes juggernaut Novo Nordisk sponsors IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball in exchange for his Tweets@racewithinsulin – including whenever he injects with their products
  • Johnson & Johnson finances The Fatigue Coalition – a patient-advocacy group that promotes off-label (unapproved) uses of the J&J drug Procrit for cancer patients, despite studies* concluding: “these agents  are effective in the management of cancer-related fatigue but also raises serious concerns about safety data and adverse outcomes associated with these agents. The review concludes that these agents should not be used for the treatment of fatigue in patients with cancer.”
  • Mark R. Westlock, a former Pfizer drug rep from 1991-2007, revealed (in the ultimately successful whistleblower lawsuit that resulted in record-breaking $3.2 billion criminal fines) that the world’s biggest drug company had funded the advocacy group, National Alliance on Mental Health, “in order to turn the nonprofit into a ‘Trojan Horse’ that would promote the antipsychotic drug Geodon for non-approved use in children.” The number of antipsychotic drug prescriptions written for children doubled to 4.4 million between 2003 and 2006.

In addition, some online shills use what’s known as sock puppetryThis is where they sign on as one user soliciting recommendations for a specific product or service. They then sign on as a different user pretending to be a satisfied customer of a specific company. In some jurisdictions and circumstances, this type of activity may be (and should be) illegal.

For example, last summer, The Times in London reported that the owner of the Drumnadrochit Hotel near Loch Ness admitted to posting a fake review of his own venue on the TripAdvisor website, calling it “outstanding” and “charming”. The hotel owner told The Times:

“Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. But I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”

In 2004, it emerged that author John Rechy gave himself a 5-star review on Amazon for his book The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, a review which was attributed only to “a reader from Chicago”. Amazon has since tightened up procedures to try and verify the identity of all reviewers.  See also: “Best book I’ve ever read!” Rave reviews for sale

* Minton O, Richardson A, Sharpe M, et al: Drug therapy for the management of cancer-related fatigue. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 7: CD006704, 2010.

Q: Have you encountered examples of sock puppetry and astroturfing?

See also:

7 thoughts on “Sock puppetry, astroturfing, and the marketing ‘shill’ game

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  2. Dear Carolyn,

    Thanks for an excellent expository piece. It, and the simple messages it contains, are long, long overdue. I’ve worked in PR and advertising for nearly 40 years and remain perpetually amazed at the underhanded lengths some companies will go to to push their products or services. It’s time someone went to jail for this crap and I hope you put a little grease on the slide.

    I wish I knew precisely how gullible the public is. Lately, it seems to know no bounds. “Dollars for Gold” is a typical scam that really frosts my cookies. It’s easy to say that anyone who responds to this, at best, unscrupulous offer is an “innocent victim” of a fraud.

    Personally, I think that anyone who responds to a fast-talking Aussie shill by putting their unwanted gold in a plastic bag and mailing it off to God knows where to be evaluated by God knows who, and then complain loudly and bitterly when they get a cheque for $4.83 by return mail should be examined by a psychiatrist to see precisely how much their ability to think rationally has been diminished.

    Are these “Brooklyn Bridge” marketers getting smarter, or are we just “dumbing down” in leaps and bounds? The future just got a little bit more frightening for every voice of reason.



    • Hi Patrick and thanks so much for your astute comments. I agree – those ‘underhanded lengths’ are amazing yet, sadly, not surprising. If a marketing scam works, and if it will make money/counter a bad reputation/make shareholders happy, and if business thinks there’s a pretty good chance of getting away with it, there are many out there who’ll stop at almost nothing to sell that Brooklyn Bridge to those willing to buy.

      The New York case is important, I think, because perhaps it does signify a shift in our willingess to tolerate this kind of marketing fraud.

  3. Here in Canada, we have an interesting political development with the sudden ‘resignation’ of Helena Guergis, a federal cabinet minister who likes to have media-publicized temper tantrums in airports and who, coincidentally, has had two of her own astroturfing Parliamentary staff publicly slammed recently for their gushy letters to the media praising their boss – letters that conveniently left out the part that they work for her.

    Here’s how Maclean’s magazine described one of these: Valerie Knight, who has worked for Guergis for three and a half years in her Alliston constituency office, says it never crossed her mind to disclose their affiliation when she sent a letter to the editor on March 14. The letter was written in response to the Maclean’s article called “Power couple, unplugged,” about Guergis and her husband, former MP Rahim Jaffer, who have been scandal-plagued lately.”

    This ‘power couple’ is vying for the Most Pathetically Slimy Political Couple Award and is clearly in first place so far.

    By the way, Guergis is of course claiming that she was utterly unaware that her two staffers were coincidentally writing letters to the media in praise of their beleaguered boss.

    Makes you wonder just how dumb can these people possibly be?

    Astroturfing, sock puppetry, whatever we call it – is alive and well in Canadian politics.

  4. Technically-speaking, the NY Attorney General never actually sued Lifestyle Lift (and thus, he never “won” the case, either). Cuomo’s office investigated privately, and the parties reached a settlement. Only then did he issue the press release with specific allegations.

    Substantively, it’s essentially the same, and the procedure is tricky – I had to read it 3 times, and I’m an advertising lawyer. Other than that nit, great post. I enjoyed it.

  5. “..In online discussion media, parties may express specific opinions in order to further the interests of an organization in which they have an interest…”

    A good place to see this is in the comments section of website articles about the evils of Big Pharma. Inevitably, including here on your site, you’ll find pro-Pharma responses, clearly written by those hired to support the industry. So obvious…

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