Village Voice Media (VVM)—owner of 15 weekly newspapers, including the Seattle Weekly—is using a social-networking company it owns to erode the wall between editorial content and advertising by promoting its advertisers under the guise of community buzz.
In early January, according to Gawker, VVM bought a majority share in the year-old company Likeme.net, a review-based social-networking site much like Yelp.com. On Likeme, users can recommend and write reviews of restaurants, nightclubs, and other businesses, as well as “friend” other site members. (On its web site, Seattle Weekly denied that VVM had bought a majority stake in Likeme.net; however, VVM did not respond to requests for clarification.)
The majority of Likeme’s reviews—which appear on 12 VVM websites, next to editorial content about the businesses—are written by ad representatives for VVM. The reviews, which are exclusively positive, focus on businesses that advertise in VVM papers.
For example, if you search for a review of Nick’s Crispy Tacos on the San Francisco Weekly’s site, a review from Likeme user LaraW is prominently displayed on the San Francisco Weekly’s page for the restaurant under the heading “The Inside Word on Nick’s Crispy Tacos.”
“If you’re looking for a great midweek activity that doesn’t cost a fortune, this is a great place to go,” LaraW gushes. “The crowd is always fun and the food is awesome.”
“Lara W” is actually Lara Weiss, the advertising coordinator for the San Francisco Weekly, where Nick’s Crispy Tacos advertises.
And Weiss isn’t the only advertising staffer at a VVM paper writing reviews. Jessica Hill, the Phoenix New Times marketing director, raves that Phoenix nightclub Bar Smith is “THE place to be on a Saturday night,” while Kansas City Pitch advertising director Britton Hunter proclaims that Waldo Pizza has “excellent pizza and GREAT ranch dressing!!” Bar Smith advertises in the Phoenix New Times; Waldo Pizza advertises in the Pitch. In fact, just about every VVM publisher, promotions manager, and ad rep have accounts on Likeme, which is easy to find when cross-referenced with each paper’s staff list.
Reviews written by advertising sales managers and ad reps on Likeme are prominently posted on the websites of 12 VVM papers—the San Francisco Weekly, [Denver] Westword, Houston Press, [St. Louis] Riverfront Times, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward–Palm Beach New Times, Dallas Observer, [Minneapolis] City Pages, Nashville Scene, [Kansas City] Pitch, and the Village Voice. Nothing on these VVM websites indicates that Likeme’s glowing reviews were written by advertising staff.
While not all of VVM’s newspapers have incorporated Likeme into their websites, the ones that haven’t appear to be getting ready to do so. Nearly every member of the ad staff at Seattle Weekly—which is one of the first five Seattle businesses that shows up on Likeme’s Seattle site—has written reviews on Likeme (some of them for Seattle Weekly itself). For example, Debbie Porter, aka “DebbieP,” the Weekly’s promotions manager, writes about the Weekly as if she didn’t work there: “Talk about issues! Boy, do these guys have ’em! Every Wednesday there’s another issue. Another Uptight Seattleite and another horoscope. Love these guys!”
VVM isn’t the first company to engage in this practice, referred to by industry watchdogs as “astroturfing.” Companies such as Sony, Microsoft, and Philip Morris have all built fake grassroots campaigns to promote their own products or slam competitors.
“I think [VVM’s] first obligation is to be honest and transparent,” says Kelly McBride, ethics leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “You lose your marketability when you allow people with an agenda to post. And clearly the ad reps have an agenda: They want to make their clients happy.”
McBride adds, “When you create the false impression yourself… that’s really, really bad. It’s inherently dishonest, and I’d think it undermines your credibility.”
VVM management did not return calls for comment.
This article has been updated since its original publication.