There is a place where we all go when it comes to finding answers about various things on the planet, from the definition of the sewing needle to the history of money. Interesting things are to be discovered on Wikipedia. What we’ve recently found out is that even more appealing things are to be found “underneath” Wikipedia. From the revenue Wikipedia started with, continuing with the editors’ controversy and, what drew our attention most, the advertising policy of the big online encyclopedia. What we wanted to find out was: Can Wikipedia allow editors to be paid for writing or publicizing a story?
Can Wikipedia be turned into a “billboard”?
In this article we’ll be answering this question by faring Wikipedia’s tangled threads, bringing to your attention some very interesting case studies of advertising and product placement on the world’s biggest online encyclopedia.
Sleight of Hand
Wikipedia doesn’t allow advertising. In other words, a brand can’t advertise there in a traditional way. Well, at least until now.
That’s a pretty intriguing intro to an ad, especially if you know the first part is true. Which is probably why the famous tire manufacturer Pirelli used it to boast about its advertising prowess, a bit over a year ago. Their technique, according to the ad, was to “doctor” Wikipedia articles in a somewhat novel way: by replacing the pictures previously used to illustrate certain Pirelli and tire-related articles with higher-quality images but with a twist. In their own words, what was characteristic of the new images was that “the Pirelli brand appeared on every single image in a super contextual way, turning the image into a powerful ad placement.”
What Pirelli did was to “improve” Wikipedia articles about the brand with high-quality images from their own bank which had the brand name visible in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. While some images only had the brand name visible on tires (not very in-your-face), others were much more obvious, having Pirelli banners at the center and race cars barely in the background. The idea apparently came from advertising agency Havas Digital. Regardless where it came from, it caused quite a stir.
Just Smoke and Mirrors
Wikipedia’s reaction was swift and decided: that was all a fake. All changes are carefully and closely tracked by a fierce team of editors. If you’re a brand, that goes double for you. So what were the chances for Pirelli to deploy those changes long enough so that they’d get to capture them for the tire company’s ad? Planting images would ring as big an alarm bell as planting words or links. Administrators of the online crowdsourced encyclopedia were quick to set the record straight and emphasize that their photographs policies are very clear and favor Wikimedia Commons content over proprietary content, even when image quality might be higher for the latter.
There were even people who checked and confirmed at the time that no attempts had been made to change photos on the advertised articles . Perhaps somewhow ironically (depending on your definition of the word), Pirelli didn’t catch that boat even after the incident: there is no mention about this incident on the Wikipedia page for Pirelli, or anywhere else in the encyclopedia, for that matter. But despite that and the fact that Pirelli itself later admitted to it all being a fake and carried out as a guerilla marketing stunt, the idea of “cracking” Wikipedia was planted in the minds of marketers everywhere.
The video was removed from Pirelli Brazil’s Youtube channel , yet copies of the video continued to create uproar. Ralph Traviati, the company’s spoke person stated that the video produced by Harvas was only a demonstration of an initiative that was never implemented. Yet, knowing Wikipedia’s policy towards advertising, why would anyone try to have such an initiative? However, the PR did his part well and some reactions were spawned on Twitter as well, as you can see in the screenshot above.
The Real Deal?
So is there any chance we’re ever going to see advertising on Wikipedia, one form or another?
Despite what various sources might try to indicate, self-promotion does not count as advertising. Yes, they might be technically running an “ad”, but no, that’s not what this is all about. We’re talking about Wikipedia accepting a third party intervention for its financial or material gain. And this has not happened yet. But could someone do it? With or without Wikipedia’s and their editors’ approval?
Wiki’s Deal with Gibraltar’s Government
A perhaps even bigger scandal developed in the fall of 2012 and involved accusations of product placement on Wikipedia. What happened was that the Did You Know (DYK) section on Wikipedia was seemingly assaulted by articles about Gibraltar. Sure, it’s an interesting territory, but to appear 17 times in the DYK section in a single month is a feat that borders the unbelievable. Mostly because it is hard to believe that it would pop up “randomly” so many times in a single month (all 17 times happened in August 2012).
So how did a territory of only 2.6 square miles make rounds on Wikipedia’s front page more times than any other subject (bar the Olympics)?
It turns out that these articles were all promoted by Wiki gatekeeper Roger Bamkin, who, incidentally, also happened to have a contract with the government of Gibraltar to publicize the territory on the online encyclopedia. Of course, most editors and board members of Wikimedia have other daily jobs, but they’re not supposed to act on them while working for and on Wikipedia. But even though Bamkin’s actions were intuitively wrong, they were in a somewhat gray area: after all, he didn’t go and edit the articles in Gibraltar’s favor (a much more serious offense), he just gave them a gentle push to the front section.
This gray area caused quite a stir among Wikipedia’s editors, with reactions ranging from disinterested to heated and everything in between. Some users even proposed the banning of the involved users. Wikipedia owner Jimmy Wales even came out and declared himself “disgusted” about the situation and requested a five-year ban on the perpetrators. Despite Wales’ attempts at dealing with the situation, things did not get better.
Just months after the original scandal, once the media agitation died out, Gibraltar came back strong in the DYK section.
Protecting Wikipedia from Itself
So why did nothing happen at the time? To put it simply, it’s because Jimmy Wales may be the owner, but he’s not the boss. In fact, there is no boss.
That is the beauty but also the problem with crowd-sourced initiatives: they work at a price. And the price is that sometimes there is no conclusion following a dispute.
To us, Jimmy Wales’ idea about the five-year ban might sound reasonable, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound the same to the people who are actually doing the work. The talks involving “Gibraltarpedia” on the Wiki talk pages seems never-ending, and opinions about the five-year ban range from “a bit excessive” to “a flat-out terrible idea”. And these are not users who are happy about the Gibraltar scandal (or at least they don’t seem to be), but rather users who seem to genuinely think about the impact of such a measure in the long run.
We invite you to take a look at the screenshot below and judge for yourself weather the Gibraltarpedia follows the rules imposed by Wikipedia itself. Not exactly, huh?
It’s also worth noting that there might be more at stake here than meets the eye. It’s also a question of how (and whether) to govern a grassroots enterprise like Wikipedia. After all, if the editors and users are what make Wikipedia so great, then maybe we should trust them that they’re going to do the right thing, taking into account not just what happens at the moment, but also what might happen in the longer run. But accepting this leaves a door open to questions such as:
Are more people now going to try to abuse this type of product placement on Wikipedia?
Can the Wikipedia community ‘police’ itself well enough to avoid the commercialization of the encyclopedia?
Is it time for Wikipedia to reconsider its attitude towards advertising and create a new strategy that incorporates ads rather than get dragged into its own inescapable downfall as a reliable and objective information source?