Right. Okay. Got one for ya. You’ll like this. Earlier today I wrote a post about my father, who I haven’t had any contact with for almost thirty years. It was a difficult post to write – it had taken me almost two weeks to build up the nerve to write it. After I got it out there, however, a number of people commented almost immediately – uniformly pleasant, supportive, decent posts. I’ll confess, it was nice. As usual some of them were a little more emotional about the whole thing than I felt comfortable with, but generally the whole thing was a positive experience. I felt positive that I’d got the message out, was hopeful that talking about the experience might make such a process easier for someone else to go through, and felt that I’d said enough for the moment. Everyone’s got something out of it. Everyone’s happy.
And then I got a comment from a man called Barry Scott. The comment read as follows:
“Hi Tom, Always remember one thing. Life is very, very short and nothing is worth limiting yourself from seeing the ones you love. I hadn’t seen my father in 15 years until 2 years ago. I was apprehensive but I kept telling myself that no matter how estranged we’d become there was no river to wide to cross. Drop me a line if I can be of any more help. Cheers, Barry”
Sounds fine, doesn’t it? Except that ‘Barry Scott’ isn’t a real person – he’s a marketing vehicle for a brand called Cillit Bang and his weblog is a barely disguised viral marketing platform for the product.
Now clearly, it was pretty difficult to believe that even a marketing / advertising organisation would be comfortable actively promoting their product in a space where someone was reporting their first contact with their father for nearly three decades. I mean, sure, there’s some limited mileage to be gained in getting a link on a number of weblogs – although with all the anti-spam tech in place now they can’t possibly have been hoping for Googlejuice. But still, that’s not an enormous benefit for such a grotesque act.
My view was that any right-thinking person would view trying to market your product on such a post as revolting, corrupt, cynical, disgusting, sick and dishonourable. And to do such thing in such an offhand, casual manner? I mean that’s got to be bordering on sociopathic. And for it to be a trick! It could only be viewed as an attempt by these people to exploit a community’s – and an individual’s – good faith to sell a few bottles of highly corrosive cleaning fluid. And it wasn’t even an automated message operating indiscriminately – this was a hand-written note posted by an individual human being.
But as I’ve said, my instincts in this matter were that no one could be that cynical, so I decided to do some exploring. Some possibilities – the guy who wrote the comment wasn’t connected with the weblog or advertising at all, just reusing the name / meme. Or maybe the weblog wasn’t connected to the brand, and was just some jokers attempt to collate and maintain some funny brand-related stuff. Maybe it was even an attempt to subvert or parody Cillit Bang.
So stage one is to find the IP address of the person who left the comment. According to Movable Type that is 220.127.116.11. And according to Sam Spade that correlates to a lon30ex01.yr.com which is owned by an organisation called Young & Rubicam. Going to the website of Young & Rubicam, I see that they handle advertising campaigns. Their site is all Flash, so forgive me for retyping some of it:
“We make connections between our client partners and their customers. We are client-focused, insightful, pragmatic. We believe in ideas. Ideas based on rigorous analytic processes and human insights.”
Hm. Human insights. Okay, so they’re an advertising firm, the comment purporting to be Barry Scott comes from their servers, the weblog looks like a marketing tool of some kind. I think we’re beginning to see a pattern. So I find their London offices and I start to ring around. They have a few offices in London under a variety of names: “Banner Corporation PLC”, “Nylon”, “Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R”, “Y&R Holdings (U.K.) Ltd European HQ”, “Young & Rubicam Brands EMEA”. I ring each in turn, they’re all terribly helpful, but none of them think they’re handling the Cillit Bang brand. So no luck there. Maybe this isn’t as cynical as we’d initially thought?
From here, it’s back to the internet. After a search for Cillit Bang and Young & Rubicam brings back very few decent answers, I try the more general Cillit Bang agency which eventually leads me to a page on kreativ online which lists the Cillit Bang account as being the responsibility of Partners J. Walter Thompson, which then leads me back to JWT.com.
From here it’s back to the phones. We’re still trying to determine, by the way, if the weblog is a marketing platform at all. So off we go to JWT’s uk offices, who are quite comfortable to accept responsibility for the Cillit Bang account but who sound very confused by the idea that the campaign might have an associated weblog, and even more surprised by the idea that people working for another advertising agency could possibly be posting comments in the name of one of their associated brand assets. They say they’ll ring me back shortly, and indeed they do – this time with another set of names including Sabrina Geremia and Marva Carty working at a company called Reckitt Benckiser. So I go and ring them up.
This phone call is a little more involving. Sabrina is unavailable, so I talk to Marva. I ask if they’re running a viral web-based campaign for the product Cillit Bang and she says, slightly reservedly, that they are and that it’s a weblog. Shortly afterwards we’re at a dead end – Marva really wants to know what’s going on before she’ll say any more. I tell her the story of the evil exploitative marketing company virally promoting cleaning products duplicitously all over the story of my reunion with my estranged father, and for some reason she starts to sound a little nervous. She’s unclear as to why any organisation would do that – I point out that people post comments all the time to try and get higher rankings in Google (it doesn’t work) and traffic from people who follow the links. She sounds very uncomfortable. She wants me to send all my evidence to Sabrina who will get back to me on Monday morning. I say that I can’t guarantee that I won’t write about this stuff in public in the meantime.
And it’s just as well that I didn’t guarantee it, because you’re reading it. One way or another – whether these specific people are directly responsible for spamming our conversations with their marketing – this whole enterprise stinks to high heaven. The fake weblogs that pretend to be real are almost bad enough – it’s an attempt to muddy the reality of a community with the fantasy world that they need to flog cleaning products and make it seem glamourous or exciting. But someone out there – associated with one marketing group or another – is also keen to directly stick their dirty little hands in the cookie jars of well-meaning, honourable people. They’re quite happy to pollute or destroy the value of the enterprise for everyone else if they can derive even the tiniest return from it.
I’m going to give them the benfit of the doubt and say that this whole enterprise is based on clumsiness and stupidity rather than evil, but we have to make a stand and make it clear to these people that if you live by the sword you die by the sword. It’s not good enough for just these marketing people to realise that they’ve screwed up and damaged the brands they were associated with – we have to keep making examples of them to stop other clumsy organisations viewing our self-created territories as nothing more than sales opportunities. Do not lie to us because we will expose you. Be honourable, or we will erase you. And all anyone will see when they search on Google for your products is that there is no depth to which you will not stoop to get another few bottles into someone’s shopping basket.
To be decent about the whole thing, I’m going to let Marva have the final word, because maybe other marketers out there will hear them and learn from them, and it will stop them making the same mistakes again. And the evidence I’m going to send to Sabrina? The URL of this post. If she sends a more coherent response back, I’ll post that too…
“Us going into blogging is a new thing – it’s a new thing and we’re not trying to do anything that could cause you distaste. If this is the kind of thing that’s happening, then we need to stop it happening. I honestly don’t believe that the effect it’s had has been at all intentional. If this is happening then it needs to be re-evaluated. This is not what we’re trying to achieve.“
Addendum (added 3rd October 2005): The people at Cillit Bang have apologised for the error of judgment and I have accepted their apology. You can read more about it here: An Apology from the Cillit Bang team.