Please tell me this isn’t true

Please tell me this isn’t true…

Northwestern University (very, very good and well-respected university in the U.S.) teaches the first course on viral videos. OK, I get it. Viral videos are an important phenomenon in today’s media landscape & contemporary culture, and they should be studied. This is wonderful news.

Except that, according to a Northwestern press release, they teach astroturfing as a technique to help a video become viral.

Please tell me this isn’t true!


No, really, I can’t imagine ANY university teaching students to lie and use unethical tactics.

Please tell me they teach ABOUT astroturfing, but do not recommend it as a promotional tactic. Somebody, please, tell me this isn’t true…

Triple astroturfing cheeseburger

So, what exactly is wrong with the anti-counterfeiting campaign run by Heidi Cee? Or was it run by Hunter College students? Or was it actually run by the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC)? Or was it actually run/paid for by the corporations behind the IACC?

That’s exactly the point. If figuring out who’s behind a public relations campaign feels like playing with Russian dolls, you’re most probably dealing with a case of astroturfing. Here, I see a triple case of astroturfing:

  1. IACC is a front group for corporations. Creating front groups or coalitions to campaign publicly and lobby for corporate interests is a textbook astroturfing tactic. See Beder, Sharon. “Public Relations’ Role in Manufacturing Arti?cial Grass Roots Coalitions.” Public Relations Quarterly, Summer 1998.
  2. The campaigns that students have run on many campuses, not only Hunter College, are in fact a public relations tactic for promoting IACC’s goal, are supported by IACC, and paid for by corporations. This relationship, even if it were fairly implemented and did not interfere with course content and academic freedom, is tainted by many shades of gray. To sort through them, let’s think of the publics on those campuses. Do they know that they’re targeted by an IACC campaign? Is it clear to them who exactly is behind the message? Are they fully informed and able to make a decision about the message’s credibility, which includes its source? Some campaign materials I’ve seen on IACC’s website do list IACC and a corporation (Coach, Perry Ellis, etc.) as a source of support. But is supported by a clear disclosure of interest and authorship? The shades of gray are getting darker…
  3. Finally, there’s the issue of a deceptive campaign that uses a fictional character (Heidi Cee) who engages social media. On her blog, “Heidi” writes that it’s her initiative to run this campaign and that she approached the IACC and raised funds from Coach for the campaign. It’s not until the very end of the campaign that a press release and a one-line blog post reveal that Heidi Cee doesn’t actually exist. Some people might find humor in this campaign, but the social media savvy will know that social media culture does not tolerate deception.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a similar case of astroturfing layered upon astroturfing (layered upon astroturfing). It’ll make a neat example in a public relations lesson, one that the poor Hunter College students are learning the hard way.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here are some links to help you catch up on what happened.

First, read this post that summarizes the story: A public relations campaigns class at Hunter College was closely directed by Coach (member IACC) to run an anti-counterfeiting campaign. The campaign used a fictional character. The major issues people point out about this case are academic freedom and the deceptive campaign strategy. More relevant posts on this case:

Update [Feb. 27 9:00 am]: I came across the class blog for this course. It was mainly a tool for students and professors to stay in touch. But I found a number of problematic posts showing that no one thought twice about using deception, such as these about deceiving friends on facebook or the media. And this one summarizes the origins of the campaign’s concept.