Natural or Artificial?

I recently tweeted about Zevia, my favorite new soda whose claim to fame is that it uses natural, not artificial, zero-calorie sweeteners. When I checked my account later that day, I was, perhaps naively, surprised to see that the Zevia company had retweeted me. (In my own defense, I’ve mentioned other products in past tweets without any such corporate response). I had to suppose my message and photo were so special that Zevia had to stop the presses and let the whole world know. Decide for yourself:

 “Zevia cola—now I can finally give up DC!”

To test the theory that I was a particularly talented wordsmith and photographer, I ran an experiment, asking five peers to mention Zevia in a tweet and to post an Instagram photo of the brand. All five tweets were quickly retweeted by the company, and all five Instagrams received a fast corporate response of “Cool!”

I have to admit, I felt a little cheated on. Spurred by my broken heart, I decided to investigate Zevia’s social media practices. I discovered that Zevia not only approaches bloggers with product samples, but works with popular bloggers on sponsored posts. Consequently, Zevia products have been featured on many blogs, including the popular sheknows.com and buzzsugar.com.

Natalie Gershon, Zevia’s marketing director, describes the company’s social media efforts as organic. But is it really an organic word-of-mouth process if a company solicits and even pays for grassroots exposure? I wonder.

Not that I blame Zevia for wanting to get its products into influencers’ hands (and bellies). I actually admire most of the company’s social media efforts. For instance, the Zevia 12 Million campaign is a social media program around Zevia’s “mission to eradicate America’s childhood obesity epidemic and addiction to sugar.” The firm produced the video “The 12 Million” (for how many U.S. kids are obese) to heighten brand awareness by spreading the word about the dangers of sugar. The video has garnered more than a million views on YouTube.

Zevia also offers Pinterest and Instagram contests; a YouTube channel with 36 videos; and an online newsletter complete with recipes on how to make floats, cocktails, mocktails, dishes and desserts. Great ideas! No wonder Zevia was named one of Instagram’s top 17 business accounts in 2016 and has 200,000 fans on FB and YouTube.

  Zevia on Instagram

But still, my trust of product-related social media postings is now shaken. How can I ever discern whether a positive product tweet, photo, review, or wall post is natural or artificial? I cringe to know that there are sites out there serving as matchmakers between businesses and people who will accept compensation for positive reviews on their blogs or other social media platforms. These sites include sponsoredreviews.com, famebit.com, sponsoredtweets.com and tomoson.com, to name a few. Imagine my dismay upon learning that Business Insider got more than 10 million results on a recent search for sponsored Instagram posts (it looked for the #sp or #partner hashtag) (businessinsider.com, 2017).

I am not without hope, though. Amazon allows visitors to filter reviews by “verified purchase,” so you can look only at reviews written by people who actually purchased the product on Amazon at a regular price. Last year, Amazon barred merchants from offering free or discounted items in exchange for reviews, unless merchants use Amazon’s Vine program.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission mailed letters to 90 influencers, including celebrities and star athletes, admonishing them to indicate when an Instagram post is sponsored (businessinsider.com, 2017). YouTube is striving to make it less profitable for vloggers to accept payment from companies in return for running video overlays of corporate logos and product images (Blattberg, 2015). And woe be to the business that pays someone to write a glowing Yelp review. If Yelp discovers the ploy, it will replace that review with an alert reading: “We caught someone red-handed trying to buy reviews for this business. We weren’t fooled…” (yelpblog.com, 2015).

I applaud these efforts by the government and internet services to cut down on the scam. We as customers need to demand more of this. I hope consumers everywhere will join me in raising my voice against covertly sponsored social media posts—and even against posts where the writer claims to be writing an “honest review” even though he or she received cash, free products, or deep discounts from the marketer. It’s time to take back the internet!

Sources
Blattberg, E. (2015, February 18). YouTube makes a move against brand-sponsored videos. Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://digiday.com/media/youtube-moves-outside-overlay-ads/

Rath, J. (2017, April 20). The FTC wants social media stars to stop sneaking in ads on Instagram. Retrieved May 23, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-ftc-wants-social-media-stars-to-stop-sneaking-in-ads-on-instagram-2017-4

Yelp Consumer Alerts: Shady Business Tactics? Not on Our Watch. (2015, January 27). Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://www.yelpblog.com/2015/01/yelp-consumer-alerts-shady-business-tactics-not-on-our-watch

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