An embarrassing ad campaign demonstrates that even in today’s mature digital marketing ecoystem, there are still agencies and executives at prominent brands that fundamentally don’t understand the rules of digital marketing.

Leo Burnett Tailor Made, a subsidiary of Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett Worldwide, recently came up with an idea for the Brazilian subsidiary of The North Face, a retailer that manufactures and sells outdoor apparel and equipment: take photos of people wearing and using North Face clothing and gear at prominent nature destinations in Brazil and place those photos on the Wikipedia pages for those destinations.

The apparent goal: gain top billing for The North Face brand in Google’s image search results, which are increasingly important as Google increases their prominence in the SERPs.

There was just one problem with Leo Burnett Tailor Made’s product placement stroke of genius: it constituted a hijacking of the popular volunteer-edited encyclopedia — a total violation of both the spirit of the service and its terms of use.

But it gets worse: the agency boasted about its dubious behavior in a video in which it stated, “We did what no one has done before. We hacked the results to reach one of the most difficult places: the top of the world’s largest search engine”. In an AdAge article, the agency noted that one of its biggest challenges was making it happen “without attracting attention [from] Wikipedia moderators.”

And it gets even worse: The North Face Brazil CEO Fabricio Luzzi also boasted about the effort. “Our mission is to expand our frontiers so that our consumers can overcome their limits. With the ‘Top of Images’ project, we achieved our positioning and placed our products in a fully contextualized manner as items that go hand in hand with these destinations,” he said.

After AdAge brought the shady effort into public view, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, quickly responded.

In a statement, the organization lambasted The North Face and argued that what the company did “was akin to defacing public property.” Wikipedia noted the irony of The North Face’s campaign given that “their stated mission, ‘unchanged since 1966,’ is to ‘support the preservation of the outdoors’—a public good held in trust for all of us.”

It suggested that the public should be angry at the retailer:

“When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry. Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world.”

On Twitter, some heeded the Wikimedia Foundation’s calls and tweet-shamed The North Face.

Not surprisingly, The North Face had no choice but to apologise for its transgression. “Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll strive to do better and commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on Wikipedia’s site policies,” it stated.

Leo Burnett Tailor Made’s apology wasn’t exactly an apology. Instead, the agency effectively took the opportunity to once again praise itself. “Leo Burnett Tailor Made found a unique way to contribute photography of adventure destinations to their respective Wikipedia articles while achieving the goal of elevating those images in search rankings. We’re always looking for creative ways to meet consumers where they are.”

Both The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made claimed they weren’t aware of Wikipedia’s rules. There are two possibilities: either the large brand and its large agency didn’t know that Wikipedia wasn’t a commercial playground, or they’re simply feigning ignorance in an attempt to blunt the backlash.

Neither is a good look.

What’s particularly head-scratching is that it’s hard to imagine this tactic actually increased sales or resulted in meaningful earned media. Indeed, the fact that apparently nobody noticed that The North Face had hijacked Wikipedia with commercial images before Leo Burnett Tailor Made started bragging about it speaks volumes about the efficacy of the effort, or lack thereof.

While it’s easy to criticise The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, the reality is that they are almost certainly not the only big brand and agency that either lacks basic knowledge and common sense about digital marketing, or is willing to employ dubious tactics in pursuit of equally dubious gains.

It’s 2019. Big brands and agencies should know the rules of the road for popular websites and platforms, and even if for some reason they don’t, they should by now have developed an intuitive sense for what’s ethically right and wrong in digital marketing.

Those that don’t should recognize the virtues of getting with the program.

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