'Astroturfing' refers to artificial grassroots activities manufactured by professional marketers and/or communicators to benefit companies, groups, political parties or individuals. [1] The name comes from the name brand of manufactured artificial grass used at sporting events (AstroTurf) and, in marketing and communications, reflects attempts to mimick grassroots activities. The goal is to disguise the efforts of a political candidate, group, company or individual as an independent public reaction. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups representing or funded by large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations. It has been widely used in the political arena. [2] Campaigns have been created in the past to support products, services, political viewpoints and companies. Astroturfing is becoming increasingly prevalent online through vlogs, blogs, websites, chat room chatter but the activity is not limited to online applications.

United States Senator Lloyd Bentsen is credited with coining the term in the 1980s to describe corporations' big-money efforts to put fake grassroots pressure on Congress. [3] Astroturf campaigns generally claim to represent huge numbers of citizens, but in reality their public support is minimal or nonexistent

Tabacco Industry
In the 1980s, tobacco companies paid big dollars to fund research through independent think tanks and research institutes with the objective to confusing the public over the dangers of second-hand smoke. Imperial Tobacco, Canada’s largest tobacco manufacturer, commissioned a secret study that weighed various strategies for combating the growing influence of non-smoking lobby groups like the Lung Association and the Non-smokers Rights Association. [4]
Companies like Philip Morris used their huge profits to create institutes and smokers-rights groups, including the National Smokers Alliance (NSA), [5] to promote pseudo-science and false research as the real thing, thereby confusing many people who did not really understand how the scientific process works. Campaigns convinced many non-smokers that second-hand smoke was just another unfounded fear and fought for smokers' rights, funded of course by the tobacco companies themselves. [6]

Working Families for Wal-Mart
Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFWM) portrayed itself as a grassroots organization, but was really started and funded by Wal-Mart and headed by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. [7] Edelman, Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, revealed that it was behind two blogs that purported to be created by independent supporters of Wal-Mart. The blogs, which appeared on Working Families for Wal-Mart and subsidiary site Paid Critics, were written by three employees of Edelman [8] to counter criticism from funded groups such as Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart. [9] In addition Wal-Mart hired temporary workers to approach shoppers and have them sign up to show their support. Shoppers were not told who was funding the operation. The post cards they filled out said only: “Yes, I will join Working Families for Wal-Mart because I support lower prices for working families and more jobs for my community” [10] not the real reason. Wal-Mart was met with backlash from its flogs and other failed PR attempts.[11]

Sony’s "All I Want for XMAS is a PSP"
In December 2006, the "All I want for Xmas is a PSP" marketing campaign was produced by Zipatoni, a marketing company known for their unconventional approaches [12] and included a PSP fansite where the marketers pretended to teenagers and posted a rap video titled “All I Want for X-mas Is A PSP.” Sony approved the campaign. The marketing firm took it a step further with fake comments, blogs, headlines, Diggs and product reviews. [13] Their ploy was uncovered by online gaming blogs and websites, forcing Sony to come clean and admit to creating the campaign and pull down the false endorsements and promotional campaign. [14]

Ghost Writing for John McCain
In September 2008, Dutch journalist Margriet Oostveen spent a morning in John McCain's Virginia campaign headquarters ghost-writing letters for Senator McCain. She was given guidelines to follow and key messages to incorporate while she wrote letters to be used in key markets to influence support for the Republican campaign. Not only was Oostveen given what to include she was told what not to include – writing about Governor Sarah Palin's son in Iraq was on message, writing about her pregnant daughter was not [15]
-– letters needed to speak to the voters, to appear to be written by voters with the goal to appear in newspapers, eventually signed by McCain supporters in key markets. The letters saught to influence voters with the end goal of appearing to be written and signed by a concerned voter. [16]

Ethics Explored

Kathy Fitzpatrick suggests that access, process, truth and disclosure are the fundamental marketplace principles that provide an ethical floor on which public relations practice standards can be built. [17] The practice of astroturfing raises significant ethical concerns:

  • Astroturfing corrupts communication processes by deceiving marketplace participants about both the source of communication and the true level of support for their views.
  • It creates false truths by misleading the public about either the potential impact of proposed policies or genuine citizen support for them.
  • The lack of transparency regarding the true source of communication violates the marketplace principle of disclosure which requires that information needed to aid informed decision-making be revealed. [18]

This practice is specifically prohibited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) through its code of ethics. [19] Although the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Canadian Public Relation Society (CPRS) do not specifically mention astroturfing, both organizations require honest communications. IABC’s code of ethics calls for its members to engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding [20] while CPRS demands accuracy, integrity and truth of its members and stipulates that they shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information. In addition members must deal fairly and honestly with the communications media and the public. [21]

Anti-astroturfing movement

An anti-astroturfing movement was started by Paull Young and Trevor Cook and is part of the New PR Wiki. Cook and Young oppose the practice of astroturfing in any form and feel it should never be a part of a public relations campaign because it is anti-democratic, unethical, immoral and often illegal. [22] The goal of the anti-astroturfing movement is to raise awareness of this practice, expose it for what it is, and encourage fellow communicators to join in the opposition. Cook and Young are requesting professional communication bodies to strongly, publicly and actively oppose astroturfing by PR agencies, individual practitioners and bloggers. Their suggested tactics include:
  • joining the conversation - write against astroturfing on blogs or comment on the blog posts listed on the Anti-Astroturfing page on the New PR Wiki declaring oneself and/or agency astroturf free
  • exposing possible examples of astroturfing
  • linking to the ‘Anti-astroturfing’ page with the image provided and adding ones name to the list of supporters
  • calling on politicians to take tougher legislative action against astroturfing
  • calling on industry / professional associations to speak out against astroturfing, and by
  • encouraging friends and colleagues to get involved. [23]

Anti-Astroturfing Code of Ethics

An anti-astroturfing code of ethics has been proposed for public relations practitioners. The code was developed by Kami Huyse and is posted on the New PR Wiki for feedback and discussion. The code asks practitioners:
  • Do not fabricate a public concern by paying or coercing individuals to falsely act as concerned citizens. Only help give voice to those who already hold an existing concern and/or provide education to stakeholders that might be affected by a particular issue.
  • When supporting grassroots efforts, ensure that all actions are transparent and clearly and publicly state what actions are being taking on behalf of organization or client
  • Never knowingly distort of falsify information to help clients achieve a strategic/emotional advantage in a public debate.
  • Encourage all grassroots supporters to be open and honest in all of their communications.[24]

External Links


  1. ^ http://searchcrm.techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,,sid11_gci1225340,00.html
  2. ^ Raynovalsich, R. S. (2006, AUGUST 29). Astroturf, anyone? Retrieved November 5, 2008 from http://www.lightreading.com/document.asp?doc_id=102497
  3. ^ Wolves in sheep's clothing: Telecom Industry front groups and astrotuf. Retrieved November 5, 2008 from http://www.commoncause.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=196460&ct=2527785
  4. ^ http://www.anythingbutconservative.com/astroturfing-and-global-warming.html
  5. ^ http://www.toolworks.com/bilofsky/astrotrf.htm
  6. ^ http://www.anythingbutconservative.com/astroturfing-and-global-warming.html
  7. ^ http://www.coxwashington.com/reporters/content/reporters/stories/2006/11/26/BC_WAL_MART_ADV26_COX.html
  8. ^ (2006, October 20) PR firm admits it's behind Wal-Mart blogs. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/20/news/companies/walmart_blogs/index.htm
  9. ^ Working Families for Wal-Mart. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Working_Families_for_Wal-Mart
  10. ^ Wal-Mart rolls out the astroturf carpet. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://walmartwatch.com/blog/archives/wal_mart_rolls_out_the_astroturf_carpet/
  11. ^ http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/oct2006/db20061009_579137_page_2.htm
  12. ^ http://www.adpulp.com/archives/2005/04/zipatoni_to_sho.php
  13. ^ http://speakingfreely.wordpress.com/2006/12/12/sony-pays-for-fake-christmas-wishes-all-i-want-for-christmas-is-a-psp/
  14. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2006/dec/11/newsonyviral
  15. ^ Oostveen, M. (2008, September 24) I ghost-wrote letters to the editor for the McCain campaign. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/09/24/mccain_letters/index.html
  16. ^ Oostveen, M. (2008, September 24) I ghost-wrote letters to the editor for the McCain campaign. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/09/24/mccain_letters/index.html
  17. ^ Fitzpatrick, K. R. (ed.) & Bronstein, C. (ed.), (2006). Ethics in public relations: Responsible advocacy. Sage Publications, Inc.: California.
  18. ^ http://publicsphere.typepad.com/mediations/2006/07/the_case_agains.html
  19. ^ http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/psaPS8.html
  20. ^ IABC code of ethics. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://www.iabc.com/about/code.htm
  21. ^ Code of ethics. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://www.cprs.ca/AboutCPRS/e_code.htm
  22. ^ The PRIA and astro-turfing. Retrieved on November 8, 2008 from http://youngie.prblogs.org/2006/07/11/the-pria-and-astro-turfing
  23. ^ Join the anti-astro-turfing campaign. Retrieved November 8, 2008 from http://youngie.prblogs.org/2006/07/16/join-the-anti-astroturfing-campaign/
  24. ^ Hutse, K. (n.d.) Anti-astroturfing code of ethics. Retrieved November 6, 2008 from http://www.thenewpr.com/wiki/pmwiki.php?pagename=AntiAstroturfing.HomePage