This week The North Face pulled off a clever marketing stunt that continues to deliver. Even following the company’s retraction and apology, the glittering underhandedness of the campaign will inspire marketing scum for generations.
The campaign first garnered attention and ire on Tuesday when Ad Age ran a promotional video explaining the scheme—North Face did photo shoots of its gear and clothing at various renowned adventure destinations—like Guarita State Park, Península do Cabo, Cuillin Hills, and Serra Fina—then placed the photos on the respective Wikipedia pages, thereby scoring top spots on Google image searches.
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It’s possible no one would have ever noticed if North Face hadn’t released a video boasting about its plot. “We did what no one has done before,” the text in the video state. “We hacked the results to reach one of the most difficult places: the top of the world’s largest search engine.”
The promo also states the company paid “absolutely nothing,” and simply got prominent placement “by collaborating with Wikipedia.”
Collaboration might not have been the right phrasing.
Soon after the campaign was publicized, prominent Wikipedians criticised the scheme.
— Liam Wyatt (@Wittylama) May 28, 2019
— Mike Dickison (@adzebill) May 28, 2019
The Wikimedia Foundation released a statement asserting that North Face and the ad agency behind the campaign, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, had “unethically manipulated Wikipedia” and “risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.”
“Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims,” the statement read. “When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry.”
Following the outrage from Wikipedia and its community, The North Face issued an apology on Wednesday night.
We believe deeply in @Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.
— The North Face (@thenorthface) May 30, 2019
Leo Burnett did not immediately respond to a Gizmodo request for comment. Reached for comment, North Face did not answer Gizmodo’s question about why the company claimed it collaborated with Wikipedia, but a spokesperson sent the same statement the company shared publicly Wednesday evening.
According to the Wikimedia Foundation, volunteer Wikipedia editors have removed all the images or cropped out North Face products. The foundation claims what North Face did “was akin to defacing public property.”
Vandals, or marketing pioneers? History will be the judge.