It was only a matter of time before Wikipedia's popularity and crowdsourced content encouraged a large company to use the platform for advertising. While companies have used the platform to increase their own Wikipedia page's visibility, The North Face took a unique approach to the goal. Rather than worrying about their own ranking, they used Wikipedia's own ranking on Google Image Search to place their brand all over the world.
The company, with the help of marketing agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, decided to own adventure photography on the internet. They traveled around the world, taking photos in high profile locations, with their models wearing or carrying The North Face products, highlighting the logo. They then replaced existing photos of those locations on Wikipedia with their own photos. On its face, it seems semi-trivial, as the photos themselves were still of the locations in question. However, it meant that the first photo on Google Image Search for those locations was often the one from the company, meaning a highly increased presence of their logo for travelers.
The move was clever, but unfortunately for The North Face, is completely against the terms of service for Wikipedia. Because of the high number of changes to Wikipedia pages every day, they might have gotten away with it, save for one big mistake: they produced a video promoting their scheme, which was published publicly. In addition, they claimed in the video that they had collaborated with Wikipedia, which they had not.
Wikimedia, the organization behind Wikipedia, responded, claiming that the companies had defaced Wikipedia.
Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims. In fact, what they did was akin to defacing public property, which is a surprising direction from The North Face. Their stated mission, "unchanged since 1966," is to "support the preservation of the outdoors" - a public good held in trust for all of us.
The company has publicly apologized for the stunt in a tweet issued on Wednesday, saying,
We believe deeply in @Wikipedia's mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. 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.
Clearly, Wikipedia's moderators will be on the lookout for this type of behavior going forward, meaning that we are unlikely to see anyone else try this again any time soon. Do you think that what The North Face did was unethical, or was it a clever usage of Wikipedia's search position? Let us know in the comments.