In the U.K., "flog" is commonly used as a synonym for "sell." As in, "I need to flog this old carpet." Although, to be more accurate, its use connotes dishonest selling - more like, "I need to flog the carpet I just stole." Which makes it a uniquely appropriate, if ironic, word for the practice of fake blogging. It's appropriate because fake blogging, a.k.a. flogging, is clearly a dishonest and shady activity. But it's ironic because I can't believe that anyone really believes they could sell anything to anyone by creating a flog.
When I wrote this, the news had just gotten out that Edelman PR had been busted for creating a Wal-Mart flog. The firm paid a couple of journalists to travel around the country in an RV and stay in Wal-Mart parking lots. The flacks-for-hire wrote about the good people they met in Wal-Mart and the good things the company was doing.
Allegedly the inspiration for the adventure came in good faith from the bloggers. But when they asked for permission to stay in lots of Wal-Mart car parks, they managed to get the trip underwritten by Edelman in return for writing nice things about the client. And they failed to disclose the financial arrangement as their flog developed.
The shame is that if they'd been a little bit more up-front about the financial details of the trip, the integrity of the idea might have been protected. And, in this case, the integrity of the idea was worth protecting. Roughly put, the idea was, "Wal-Mart lets RVs stay in their car parks for free, so let's tour the country staying only in their parking lots." That's an original and entertaining idea. I'd even take the bloggers at their word that they met and spoke to a lot of good people who work for Wal-Mart across the country. If they'd been more honest to start with, those stories would have had a life. Instead, all of their contaminated content has been consigned to the virtual landfill.
The thing I find staggering is that anyone really believed the ruse wouldn't eventually be uncovered. While he was still at GE, Jack Welch used the phrase "the naked truth" to describe the effect that the Internet would have on a corporation's ability to maintain its privacy. He rightly concluded that there was no such thing as corporate privacy anymore. Which is what makes this case so surprising. The bloggers-turned-floggers seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would figure out they weren't who they claimed to be. They even seemed nonplussed that there were Wal-Mart opposition groups that would spoil their fun.
The naked truth is that if any company (especially a very big one) is doing something naughty, someone will find out. Once uncovered, these findings will get published as widely as possible. Once they're published, the credibility of the naughty company will diminish, making it harder for it to sell things.
In the Web 2.0 era, people don't want to be shut out. They want to be let in. They don't like closed doors; they like open books. People these days reward companies that make openness, free information, and the power of community central to the way they do business. When like-minded people find those good companies, they reward them with their business. It's why Google, Linux, eBay, and YouTube have become so popular.
Dishonesty just doesn't sell anymore. I have to wonder whether the Marc Ecko stunt, in which he tagged Air Force One, paid dividends in the end. Sure, lots of people saw it, and it was an interesting story. But in the end, it was just an ad that tried to convince me of something that didn't actually happen. Did I think differently about the Ecko brand? Not really. If they'd really done it, I would have. But at the end of the day, they just did an ad - an interesting viral ad, to be sure, but still just an ad.
So here's my holiday wish: Can we all be a little more honest in our marketing next year? We don't need to go to the extremes of "Volvo: Boxy but good." But a little more honesty, a little more openness, and a little more humility would go a long way to making the marketing programs of 2007 a lot more interesting.
A little less fake blogging, and a little more honest flogging, if you will.
Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (firstname.lastname@example.org)