Caveat emptor: Not all ‘word of mouth’ blogs unpaid


Staff Writer

Is word-of-mouth information on the Internet trustworthy — or to be taken with a grain of salt?

The operator of a popular website collecting presumably honest consumer commentary about restaurants is endeavoring to gain consumer trust and ensure planted stooges aren’t unleveling the playing field.

Kakaku.com Inc., which runs the site Tabelog, said in January it found 39 companies that had been paid by certain restaurants and shops to talk them up and asked that such mercenary practices cease.

Pretending to be a satisfied consumer posting complimentary comments is a classic example of stealth marketing, a practice that has gained greater traction in the online world.

Following are questions and answers regarding stealth marketing:

What defines stealth marketing?

Stealth marketing is an attempt to dupe consumers into believing that what they see posted are honest comments from their peers, not paid propaganda disguised as input from ordinary folks.

Generally, if restaurants, shops and other establishments pay people to write something positive about them on the Internet, that constitutes stealth marketing.

When did stealth marketing in its current form start?

The actual term was coined probably around 2006 in the United States, when Edelman, a large public relations firm, reportedly paid bloggers to travel across the country and write positive commentary about one of its clients, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“That is probably when the term became widely known,” said Internet literacy expert Hiroyuki Fujishiro, the representative for the Japan Center of Education for Journalists.

Japan’s take on stealth marketing started in December 2008 when McDonald’s Corp. hired part-time workers to line up to buy its newly introduced Quarter Pounder at various outlets and later post positive articles about the hamburger, he said.

Is stealth marketing unethical?

Stealth marketing originally was considered innovative, but now is basically regarded as deceptive and thus unethical, Fujishiro said, adding many consumers have grown wary of hype.

Stealth marketing is nonetheless legal, according to the Consumer Affairs Agency. Also, it is generally difficult to prove what, if any, harm may come to consumers who are taken in by fake positive commentary, although genuinely critical, or negative, commentary can cross the legal line into defamation and trigger lawsuits.

In the case of Taberogu, nobody was held criminally responsible and no legal action has been taken against the 39 companies involved in the deceptive practice. Kakaku.com Inc. conducted its own investigation and announced its results in a press release.

How can stealth marketing be curtailed?

If Internet postings convince consumers that certain products or services are “remarkably” better than rivals’ products, the authors may be violating the Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations. However, there have been no lawsuits over stealth marketing.

The Word of Mouth Japan Marketing Association, a volunteer group made up of people employed in the advertising and PR industries, recently drew up guidelines for stealth marketing. For example, if a company asks a blogger for a product review, it is advised to compel the blogger to divulge their relationship, including any financial compensation.

Bloggers’ reviews should state whether they were provided the item by the company, or were invited by the company to attend a particular function.

The guidelines also urge stealth marketers to refrain from clicking the “like” icon in comments about the products and services of a company on its Facebook or other SNS page.

Fujishiro agrees with WOMJ that ad and PR agencies should regulate themselves when it comes to stealth marketing because legal restrictions could discourage consumers from posting candid comments and opinions on products and services.

How could legal restrictions be enforced?

Lawyer Hisamichi Okamura said the Consumer Affairs Agency should draft rules that clarify what kinds of Internet postings are permissible and will not discourage honest information from being passed by word of mouth. The U.S. Fair Trade Commission has made similar rules and they work well, he said.

What is the Consumer Affairs Agency’s position on stealth marketing?

The agency does not consider stealth marketing itself a violation of the Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, unless Internet postings make people believe services or products are “remarkably” better than that of their rivals, said Kazuyuki Katagiri, head of the agency’s Representation Division.

Comments like “tasty” and “beautiful” would not be considered improper because they are socially acceptable, he said.

Also, providers of products and services are regulated in terms of representation. That means companies specifically in the business of posting positive comments on the Internet on behalf of their clients face no legal action, even if the paid praise they heap by nature clearly elevates their vested interest over its rivals, Katagiri said.

For example, if a restaurant instructs a comment-posting company to write a specific comment that is deemed illegal under the Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, the restaurant will be held liable.

But if the instruction is to “write freely” and the posting company writes comments indicating the restaurant’s food is remarkably better than its rivals, nobody will be held responsible, he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp