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By Joel Klebanoff

Internet Marketing Sleaze

I recently came to realize that I'm so far out of the loop that the loop might as well be a tiny circle of thin string snagged on the uppermost branch of a gigantic tree growing on a smallish planet in the farthest solar system of a distant galaxy. Traveling at the speed of light, I still couldn't, within my lifetime, get to the loop from where I am, not even after taking into account Einstein's theory of the slowing of time as you accelerate to light speed. What led me to this conclusion was an October 7, 2006, article in The Washington Post that described some Internet marketing tactics. Most of the tactics were totally foreign to me. What's more, I had never even heard of the names that are, apparently, quite commonly applied to these practices, or, more accurately, I hadn't heard the names in that context.

I'm embarrassed to admit this fact because I try to fashion myself as a provider of marketing communications services for information technology vendors. Perhaps the gap in my marketing knowledge explains why my career has not yet made me rich. That might, in turn, explain why I'm here in my disheveled home office slaving away writing this gibberish rather than, say, observing the parade of life from my perch in a Paris café or casting furtive glances in the display windows as I stroll along the sidewalks of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam. But I digress.

What are some of these marketing practices? One is called a meat puppet. Before reading the article, as far as I was concerned, a meat puppet was someone dressed up as a steak to act as a mascot for a restaurant. Or, outside of the marketing sphere and based solely on its name, I thought the term "meat puppet" might refer to the late Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop. Lamb Chop didn't pop into my mind spontaneously. The article from The Washington Post suggested that many people would think of Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop when they heard the name of a related Internet marketing ruse, a sock puppet. If you are too young to know who Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop were, then you are a young whippersnapper who should respect your elders, particularly me. But I'm digressing again.

Apparently a meat puppet is neither a mascot for a restaurant nor Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop. According to the article, a meat puppet is a fictional character that poses as a real person on an online social networking site. The meat puppet tries to attract real people. Products or services are then promoted either directly or indirectly to the visitors, possibly by getting their email addresses and spamming them later. In case you were wondering, yes, the terms of service posted by the major social networking sites usually say that's not a legal use of their sites. Furthermore, regular readers know what I think of spam. In short, a meat puppet marketer hardly epitomizes the ideal sort of company I want to deal with.

Similar to a meat puppet, a sock puppet is a second account opened by a legitimate person on a social network. This is done to disguise the identity of the sock puppet owner, possibly in order to denigrate a competitor or to promote the puppet master's products or services without raising suspicion about the puppet's motives.

Thanks to learning of the existence of these and other practices, I've come to the conclusion that there must be marketers out there who spend all of their waking hours inventing sleazy new ways to deceive people. I guess I missed that class when I was studying marketing.

My personal marketing philosophy says that prospective customers for products like the one you're trying to sell fall into one of three groups. Your product is clearly the best choice for customers in group "A." A competitor's product is best for group "B" customers. Group "C" consists of those prospective customers who cannot discern an overall advantage for any one vendor's product, because there isn't one. Each product has its advantages. These differing benefits come close enough to balancing each other out, and there are enough unknowns to make it impossible to determine a clear winner.

Vendors try to go to market with a product that provides features and benefits that will lead to "A" being the largest of the three groups. Nonetheless, if they are being honest with themselves, they have to admit that, more often than not, "C" is the most populous category. I believe that if you and your competitors are all honest and effective in your marketing communications, you will capture close to 100% of group "A." If you and your competitors are honest, but you're more effective in communicating your benefits, you'll capture the lion's share of group "C" as well.

My theory is that if you can't make a decent living by capturing all of group "A" and at least an equal share of "C," then you should look at redesigning your product rather than lying about it. Maybe I'm naïve, but I think that if you consistently try to deceive your prospective customers, you might fool them and win their business once, but eventually they will catch on and desert you forever. Then again, before you consider following my marketing advice, you might want to keep in mind the caveat about my not yet having become rich by adhering to it.

Of course, meat puppets, sock puppets, and the like are not the only sleazy Internet marketing tactics out there. I’ve written more than enough about spam in the past and I won’t expand on it here, but there's also adware, which is nasty software that buries itself on your computer and frequently pops up ads as you surf the 'net. Adware can be installed on your computer in a number of ways. It can, for example, enter as part of a virus attached to an email. However, it most often arrives embedded in an absolutely must-have browser toolbar add-on that does something like display a reading of your palm in 126 languages. You can't live without that, now can you? (I made that up as something that I thought couldn't possibly exist. There are useful toolbars that don't have tag-along adware. I didn't want to accidentally besmirch any of them. If there is a legitimate, adware-free, multilingual palm-reading browser toolbar, please accept my apologies. But, if so, despite my desire to appear non-judgmental, I feel the need to ask: Are you totally deranged?)

You may not know it, but when adware enters your computer via a browser toolbar or some other "nifty" software add-on, you've probably given permission to install the adware. If you were to carefully read the 3,298,942 legalistic words that normally comprise the license for these programs (a license that you must accept by clicking a button before the software loads), you'll usually find, buried deep inside the text, a few words to the effect of "along with the useful toolbar, you give us permission to install some particularly hideous software that will, despite your best efforts to get rid of it, annoy the hell out of you for the rest of your natural born days." They're never that honest about it, but they're honest enough that you probably won't be able to sue them successfully. What they, justifiably, are counting on is that most people won't read beyond the first paragraph or two of those 3,298,942 words, if they even read that far. Who has the time?

I won't say any more about adware because most people already know about it, and absolutely everyone who does (except, of course, for the adware providers themselves) recognizes that it's evil. Well, maybe not absolutely everyone. Microsoft annually designates some industry experts as Most Valuable Professionals, or MVPs. According to the Microsoft Web site, "Customers want an enriched pool of knowledge and real-life experience to tap for advice and feedback. MVPs are helping to satisfy this need by independently enabling customers in both online and offline technical communities." What does one Microsoft MVP awardee distribute? (That's what Microsoft calls them even though Microsoft Word tells me that "awardee" is a typo.) You guessed it. According to an October 6, 2006, Computerworld article, one of the awardees is the developer of a plug-in that is known to distribute adware. Oh joy, oh bliss. Way to go on that satisfying-my-needs thing, Microsoft.

Microsoft provides each MVP with a Web page where he or she can post a personal profile. The offending software is—or, rather, was—listed there, although the profile page didn't mention the adware payload. I can't provide a link to the MVP's page because, while it existed when I started writing this column, it had disappeared by the time I checked again while proofing my prose. What a surprise that is. Three cheers for the power of the press! Nonetheless, for a while, the offending software was listed as a product of an MVP on a page on the Microsoft Web site. If you're more ambitious than I am, you may still find the page on a Web cache somewhere. Some people might have seen that as an endorsement and, based on that, felt confident in using the program. I guess it's a good thing then that, in a fit of corporate consistency (he said sarcastically), Microsoft's anti-spyware software, Windows Defender, blocks the program.

Now that I've finished my rant, I have to remind you that my marketing principles have not yet made me rich, so I'm always looking for new clients. If you are an information technology vendor looking for some help with your marketing communications, please drop me a line unless, of course, you're looking for someone to provide you with a meat puppet, a sock puppet, adware, or some other marketing vehicle of the scummy sort. In that case, you don't want me; you want one of the sleazy varieties of marketers. They'll be the ones driving around in brand new Porsches—not that I'm bitter or anything.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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