Marketing is tough. But some brands have such fantastic ideas, it makes the rest of us sit back and wonder why we never thought of it. This example of how The North Face got to the top of Google images is one of those occasions. But did this great idea cross the line?

The situation

You’ve probably Googled a few destinations when planning a holiday. No doubt you took a look at the image results when you did. Did you notice how often the first image is from Wikipedia?

The North Face had noticedand it saw the opportunity for some free advertising. It was able to “manipulate” Wikipedia so that its brand appeared at the top of Google image searches. It went to different destinations across the world, took a new photograph that subtly included its own brandingeither on a backpack or a topand replaced this with the existing photo on that destination’s Wikipedia page. And hey presto, suddenly The North Face appears as the top hit on Google images when searching for certain destinations. 

The problem

We’re not afraid to admit that the concept behind this project was a stroke of genius, but it raises a number of issues about the boundaries of marketing and its place on the internet. The reaction online has been quite strong, with companies and consumers alike quick to reprimand The North Face. Fast Company has even gone so far as to label the stunt an example of “asshole advertising”.

I think the biggest issue with this campaign was not so much what they did (because, let’s face it, all marketers are impressed with the ingenuity and the tact that was required to pull it off); the problem is that they undermined the moderators of Wikipedia. While The North Face claims to have collaborated with Wikipedia to pull off this stunt, Wikipedia denies any such agreement and referred to the situation as an “unethical… short-lived marketing stunt”.

 What they did was akin to defacing public property… When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry.
Wikipedia spokesperson

We all accept we’re going to get pushed adverts when we’re online, but there’s a time and a place. Wikipedia was one of the few sites that remained unbiased and free from endorsement, and has a team of moderators working hard to keep it that way. By manipulating this website into subtly advertising to its reader, has The North Face crossed the line of internet etiquette? 

Posted by John on 6 June 2019