The North Face started an avalanche of controversy when it inserted the brand into Wikipedia entries about well-known mountain peaks to improve the company’s search engine results.
The company’s agency in Brazil, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, switched the Wikipedia images for each location with pictures of athletes wearing The North Face gear at more than 15 famous locations—Huayna Picchu in Peru, Guarita State Park in Brazil and the Cuillin in Scotland, among others. Because of these actions, the brand appeared at the top of Google image search results for these locations.
The agency then created a video ad in which The North Face touted how it achieved top search results on Google without paying anything as part of its “Top of Images” campaign.
However, Wikipedia was less impressed. Neither the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit organization that operates Wikipedia) nor the site itself was aware of The North Face’s manipulations. After AdAge highlighted the company’s ad campaign, Wikipedia’s volunteer editors removed the images and added information to The North Face’s Wikipedia page about the company’s surreptitious product placement.
“Adding content that is solely intended to promote a company or its products goes against the spirit, purpose and policies of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world,” according to a statement from the Wikipedia Foundation. “It exploits a free learning platform for corporate gain.”
Facing backlash, The North Face discontinued the campaign and issued an apology. “We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles,” the company said in a tweet. “Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign[,] and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.”
Why it matters: Wikipedia was less than pleased with The North Face’s attempt to promote its brand and search results by manipulating the Wikipedia platform, and immediately took action to address this issue. Although the resulting controversy forced The North Face to end its campaign early, it brought more attention to the brand. While the Federal Trade Commission has not yet focused on brands’ use of Wikipedia, The North Face’s manipulation of Wikipedia images is a form of native advertising and may be subject to the FTC’s advertising disclosure requirements.