Let's do a little experiment, shall we?
Stop reading this article for a minute (don't worry, we can wait) and look around. Wherever you are, count the number of advertisements you see from your current vantage point. The car commercial on TV, the logo on the back of your laptop, the swoosh peeking out from the edge of your sneaker—anything that some company deliberate put in place to remind you, even subtly, that they not only exist, but also have some items for sale you might find very enticing.
How many did you count? Was it a lot? It was probably a lot.
Much like in the offline world, the nearly 70 million Internet users who visit social news site Reddit every month, are deluged with ads. However, unlike in the offline world, where consumers typically have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the giant Big Mac-emblazoned billboard staring them in the face on their daily commute (hint: it's probably McDonald's), the user-driven nature of Reddit's submission and commenting processes often makes it impossible to discern if the a post extolling the childlike joy one gets from devouring a plate of french fries is coming from a highly paid, Web-savvy viral marketing firm or just a dude who really, really likes french fries.
This is precisely where the dogged denizens of the r/HailCorporate subreddit come in. Created about a year ago, HailCorporate, which currently boasts just under 30,000 subscribers, has taken upon itself the job of locating and bringing attention to the most egregious examples of both paid corporate employees and various flavors of dudes who just like french fries stone cold shilling for the man.
"Let's not make Reddit look like the outside. Where billboards, pictures of products, and company names fill the space that should be used to see the greatness and wonder in the world," explains the subreddit's info page.
Some examples of content flagged by HailCorporate users include a 17 day-old account advertising the use of Dawn dish soap to clean carpets, a post about how Little Caesar’s uses real cheese on its pizzas instead of cheese byproducts and a comment talking about how greasy spoon diner chain Waffle House cooks its bacon to order.
HailCorporate moderator zcc0nonA notes that advertisements still function as advertisements no matter what their original source. In a popular culture where the line between individual personal identity and a product's brand identity are often very profitably blurred, there isn't much of a difference for most Reddit users if a post promoting a product was paid for or not.
"I see no difference [between organic and advertising posts] except that one group is aware of what they are doing and has time to consider the consequences but still continues, while the other group is probably unaware of what they are doing in our eyes," zcc0nonA wrote in an email. "Both of these are bad I think but maybe one is more like ignorance and the other, apathy. I don't care to distinguish."
In a r/AskReddit thread posted around the same time as HailCorporate's creation, user thatfunnyfeeling explained the mechanics behind viral marketing on Reddit:
I am part of an advertising company. My team has manufactured numerous front page posts over the past 2 years. Already, we are prepping for the Dark Knight Rises campaign. This consists of "story boarding" ideas for funny pictures, like maybe a silly situation that happens at a movie theater where the DKR marquee is conveniently in the frame, or a submission that starts with "Look who I found when I went to see the DKR this weekend!". We are also allowed to screen the film early to pick out plot points that would be ripe for a "Scumbag Batman" or "Scumbag Bane" type meme, so we can plop those up immediately following the films release.
In order to do this, we need to maintain plenty of "average" accounts. This means having an account that's been active for 6+ months, posting semi-regularly, gaining karma steadily, so it's not rejected by the community when "they" submit their advertising. Sometimes I think this contributes to the banality of this website.
If done successfully—in a way that seems organic and taps into sentiments widespread within the community—appearing on Reddit can provide a significant image boost for a company. For example, last year a series of widely read posts held up warehouse club store Costco, not to mention its charismatic founder James Sinegal, as a shining example of an ethical employer who succeeded by eschewing the type of lavish salary taken by many of his corporate CEO peers and paying his employees a living wage.
Costco, whether it actively courted this online love-fest or not, reaped the publicity benefits because the company was able to elevate its brand identity, especially in contrast to big box behemoth Walmart, which isn't exactly held in particularly high regard by Reddit's generally left-leaning hive-mind. As a result, a post entitled "TIL Costco hasn't changed the price of a hot dog and soda combo ($1.50) in 21 years" that linked directly to Costco's membership signup page was able to generate nearly 24,000 comments rather than being instantly downvoted into oblivion as corporate spam.
Less successful examples of corporate advertising include a post to the "Today I Learned" subreddit entitled "TIL there is a soda that provides at least 80% of the recommended daily nutritional requirement for B1, B3, and iodine," that was immediately flagged by HailCorporate, hit with downvotes and slammed in the comments by other users accusing the original poster of blatant marketing. "No one's going to buy your f*cking soda," charged one particularly irate user.
The unlucky user who created the soda-pimping post in the first place deleted his or her Reddit account soon after.
The goal of the entire HailCorporate project, insists zcc0nonA, is less about proactively identifying every single piece of advertising posted to the site than it is an attempt to train more Reddit users to be skeptical of what they see on the Internet.
"It is simply too easy to market to Reddit in an untraceable (from where I am at least) way such that we could never hope to win the war," zcc0nonA explains, "the best we can do it to show people that their life is filled with ads they might not have even known they were seeing; and hope they think differently from then on."
However, if marketers have learned anything since Madison Avenue began co-opting the aesthetics of 1960's counter-culture to sell everything from cigarettes to Volkswagens, it's that a knowing wink aimed squarely at the audience can serve as a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the branded medicine go down.
On its official Instagram page, Oreo posted an image in the style of the ubiquitous "Actual Advice Mallard" meme, except with a duck made of cookies in place of the standard flesh-and-blood waterfowl and the words, "Post your Oreo marketing to Reddit for foolproof business success,” emblazoned on the top and bottom.
Photo by Eva Blue/Flickr