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Most marketers say online "astroturfing"—the practice of generating fake online product reviews and testimonials—is unethical, and many would consider not buying from a brand if they discovered the brand was engaging in such a practice, according to a recent survey from R2integrated (R2i).

Online astroturfing refers to a social-media or online ad campaign that's disguised as spontaneous grassroots behavior. When brands engage in online astroturfing, reviews expressed within online communities appear to come from legitimate consumers, but are instead posted by hired individuals.

Online astroturfing is common: 87% of surveyed marketers say companies plant online reviews at least some of the time:

Many marketers blame social media: 85% say the proliferation of social media has increased the practice of online astroturfing and 8% say it has made the practice a necessary evil.
Below, other findings from R2i's survey of 284 marketing professionals, which explores attitudes toward online astroturfing.

Marketers Disapprove of Astroturfing

Roughly 35% of marketers say online astroturfing is highly unethical and 42% say it's unprofessional:

Roughly one in five marketers are indifferent: 14% say they're not concerned about online astroturfing and 8% don't see the harm in it.

Trust in Online Reviews

Nearly one-half (49%) of marketers say online reviews influence their purchasing decisions most or all of the time, and 48% say reviews influence their decisions some of the time.

The least-trusted reviews are those posted on a brand's website—receiving a 2.20 mark (on a scale of 1 to 5). Reviews from friends (4.35) and traditional publishers (4.25), such as Consumer Reports, are trusted the most.

Asked whether they would stop buying a brand if they found the brand had planted reviews, 9% of marketers say they would stop buying and 63% say they might stop. But 28% say they would continue to buy that brand if they liked their products.

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Do people they know participate in astroturfing?  Some 15% of marketers say "yes, without question," they know a person or company that has participated in, or orchestrated online astroturfing. Over one in five (22%) say they "think so, but can't prove it" while 31% say "maybe" they know of a brand that has participated in online astroturfing.

FTC Settles Online Astroturfing Case

On August 26, 2010, the US Federal Trade Commission settled a first-of-its-kind complaint that it made against a public relations firm, Reverb Communications, which was accused of using employees to pose as ordinary customers to post reviews of video games on Apple's iTunes store, the agency said.

About the data: Findings are from the R2integrated survey of 284 marketing professionals from July 26 to August 4, 2010. 

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