North Face Apologizes and Ends Campaign Manipulating Wikipedia to Promote Its Products

The Leo Burnett project sparked a public rebuke from the Wikimedia Foundation

In their case study, North Face and Leo Burnett boasted of 'hacking' Wikipedia to include product placement in destination photos. Leo Burnett Tailor Made
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While people and businesses are always trying to take advantage of Wikipedia’s open-to-all approach to information, not many openly brag about it.

But that’s exactly what The North Face and Brazilian agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made did this week in announcing a campaign called “Top of Images,” which aimed to put branded North Face photography atop Google search results by adding them to location pages on Wikipedia. The case study claimed the effort was made by “collaborating with Wikipedia,” which the site later claimed was not true.

The stunt—a clear violation of Wikipedia’s rules against advertising, marketing, PR and self-promotion—quickly backfired for the brand and agency when they were called out by the online encyclopedia in a Twitter thread that eviscerated the ploy.

Last night, The North Face apologized in a response to Wikipedia’s Twitter thread and pledged to immediately end the campaign.

Here’s a look back at the campaign case study, followed by Wikipedia’s rebuke:

North Face later apologized, pledging to ensure its agencies and other vendors were more mindful of site rules in the future.

Leo Burnett has not responded to Adweek’s request for comment on the campaign, its backlash or its abrupt end.

It’s common for brands and agencies to attempt to alter search algorithms in their favor, as illustrated by the enduring popularity of search engine optimization, or SEO, as an online marketing niche. However, SEO professionals typically try to follow the rules laid out by Google and other large internet players such as Wikipedia.

In recent years, some marketers have attempted to push the boundaries of SEO in new ways, such as when Budweiser and Brazilian agency Africa won the Print Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Lions for their “Tagwords” campaign that encouraged ad viewers to search online for terms that returned images of celebrities drinking Budweiser—photos the brand would normally have to pay a large amount to license, assuming they were available for marketing at all.

Until now, such approaches have rarely backfired on marketers beyond a mild slap on the wrist, such as when Google disabled its voice-activated Home devices from responding to a 2017 Burger King ad that said, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?”


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@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."