Rosy cheeks for North Face

31 May 2019 | Lloyd Hughes
North Face has been in the news of late for negative reasons, after it was revealed the brand’s ad agency had been manipulating Wikipedia to get its promotional content featuring higher in Google’s search rankings.

The controversy centred on the fact that Leo Burnett Tailor Made, the ad agency in question, replaced images on Wikipedia of well-known landmarks with images that featured models in the foreground wearing North Face branded clothing.

Wikipedia allows volunteers to edit posts and provide content in the spirit of collaboration – so all agency ad execs had to do was set up an editor’s profile to get it done.

Now, looking at this purely from a creative angle…it’s brilliant in its simplicity.

This is a low-cost option that absolutely does its job, putting a brand prominently in front of its target audience with minimal costs (other than the models’ jollies to said landmarks, of course).

If we’d thought of a similar (non-Wikipedia related) idea, I’d be slapping backs in delight.

However, there’s a far cry from thinking and doing. As an agency, you need someone who’s willing to put the handbrake on. They’re probably regarded as the cantankerous type, crushing hopes and dreams from a shady corner of the office (no doubt smoke wreathed, back in the day). But it’s a necessary part of the creative process. You need someone to take a holistic view and say, “Hold on, guys, WTF?” when things are progressing a bit too fast.

In this instance, I imagine Leo Burnett Tailor Made possibly got caught up in the simplistic cleverness of the idea they were suggesting and no one stopped to think “Hang on, what happens if this backfires?” Let alone whether it was right to do it from an ethical point of view.

I’m sure other agencies have thought of this – they just haven’t actually gone through with it.

Having said that, it could equally have been a calculated risk. “If it blows up, so what? Just apologise and move on – at least people will be talking about the brand.” However, given that Wikipedia is trying to deliver a good thing to the internet, manipulating it in such a way certainly isn’t something to be proud of. Wikipedia isn’t Google after all, so it’s very underhand to exploit it.

The vitriol hurled the brand’s way in its wake is testament to the strength of feeling on the issue. With Leo Burnett Tailor Made being the agency tasked with enhancing the image of its client, I can only imagine there were some seriously frosty chats once the whole thing came to light. North Face has come in for some fierce criticism off the back of it and, although it must have given the green light, its ad agency is to blame.

The funniest bit about this whole scenario though is that it only came to the fore when the agency created an (admittedly visually lovely) video case study showcasing just how good an idea it was.

Now, while I can appreciate the temptation to shout about it, it’s the kind of thing the agency should only really have hinted about in pitches if it wanted recognition for it (speaking unethically, of course) – and I wouldn’t even have advocated that.

I can’t actually fathom how anyone there gave the go ahead to produce it, given the nature of what they were doing. It’s a quite frankly bizarre decision, that’s boomeranged spectacularly.

I would love to have seen how this played out if it wasn’t for the case study vid though. Would Wikipedia have picked up on it? In a reaction statement, it claimed that manipulating the site in this fashion is extremely hard to do (more backslapping for the idea, tbf) and going forward, there’s been so much publicity around this, that no one will get away with it as Wikipedia moderators will be looking for prominent brand logos. But would they have spotted it prior to this red flag? Although Wikipedia has claimed it would’ve picked up on it, I guess we’ll never know for certain whether it would have joined the dots to form the full picture.