Outdoor apparel company The North Face, owned by VF Corp. (NYSE: VFC), is getting slammed across the internet and by Wikipedia for a marketing stunt that replaced photos of some of the world’s most iconic adventure destinations with pictures of athletes wearing the brand’s gear. The company then posted a video about the stunt online, detailing how they tricked Wikipedia to end up at the top of Google’s search results. The stunt is being criticized as unethical at best.
North Face teamed up with the ad agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made for the marketing campaign. Photos in Wikipedia articles for famous destinations were swapped out for new ones the featured people wearing and using The North Face-branded products. As a result, the ad photos began appearing at the top of Google Images for the travel spots. The edits included images of sites at Guarita State Park, Península do Cabo, Cuillin Hills, and Serra Fina, among others.
The free encyclopedia was quick to denounce The North Face and its ad campaign. Wikipedia posted a message on Twitter saying: “Yesterday, we were disappointed to learn that @thenorthface and @LeoBurnett unethically manipulated Wikipedia. They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived consumer stunt.” Wikipedia also wrote that “what they did was akin to defacing public property.”
The platform’s Twitter statement continued: “When companies like The North Face take advantage of the trust you have in Wikipedia just to sell you clothes, you should be angry. Their actions have gone directly against the spirit, purpose, and policies of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world.” Wikipedia hosts 48 million articles in 300 languages and is the fifth most visited website in the world. Twelve-hundred unpaid volunteers are tasked with monitoring the English-language pages.
The North Face has since apologized for the stunt. In a statement, the company wrote: “We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we’ll commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies.” The edited images have reportedly been removed from the Wikipedia posts.