As we enter another election year, we examine the notion of ‘grass-roots‘ as associated with popular movements or opinions came into the American lexicon at the turn of the twentieth century. The, er, ‘grass roots’ of the term, according to Answers.com came a generation earlier and specific to gold mining. At its inception as a mining term, it meant the soil close to the surface and easiest to reach.
As a political and marketing term, on the other hand, it meant the deep sentiments of the population on specific issues and the politician’s need to dig in and find what the constituents wanted or needed. Marketing experts picked up on the term and its political heritage in the 1970s as an explanation for products that became popular more by word-of-mouth than by the efforts of the madmen of Madison Avenue. And since at least the so-called “Republican Revolution” of 1994 the two arenas have worked together to speak of grass-roots political movements of voters who rally themselves behind causes and then influence the professional politicians. Most recently, though, numerous sources in both politics and marketing argue that many so-called grass-roots movements are really artificially (or at least ‘externally’) energized small groups who seem bigger than they are because an unnamed source magnifies their voice. The term for this phenomenon is, of course,.
The etymology of AstroTurf begins in the mid-1960s as corporate-funded and university scientists strove to make an artificial surface that could cover play areas in less affluent urban areas. The stuff was in development when the Houston AstroDome was built for the Houston Astros in 1966 – the so-called ‘Eighth Wonder of the World” (lasting not quite as long as the pyramids) failed to grow grass, the new plastic was installed and re-christened AstroTurf.
But in marketing and politics, it is meant as a slur, not a hyperbolic achievement of chemicals over nature. The attacks on recent political energies as being ‘astroturf movments’ rather than true grass-roots/populist concerns have grown numerous (NPR questioning the Tea Party here; Pelosi on last year’s demonstrations against health-care reform ; and doubts about the recent fervor over Cordoba House in New York. But we want to focus on how companies might be trying to cultivate astroturf for their products by planting reviews or influencing click-throughs. The folks at R2Integrated.com have recently published a survey about how consumers would respond to information showing that the companies whose products and services they used were involved in astroturfing.
Sixty per cent the sample group (284 respondents) were not sure what it was, but just over three-fourths of them considered it “Unethical,” if not the worst thing companies do, or “Highly Unethical.” Yet the same respondents also tend to distrust (by more than 2-to-1) any review on a brand’s website and prefer to get their reviews from friends or trusted third-party publishers (think: “Consumer Reports”). So online shoppers are savvy to the practice, even if they are not hip to the term. Indeed, just under 75% say that they would likely or definitely stop buying a product or service from a company that they knew sponsored astroturfing. It seems like a pretty high risk for a company to take, even if inertia kept some of those 75% percenters with the company.
Given the explorations of the undisclosed donations the Koch brothers and Koch Industries have made to various Tea Parties, the concept of ‘astroturfing’ is likely to grow out to people unaware of the practice or its name. It will be quite interesting to see if voters shun in November candidates seen to be artificially supported, or if consumers move their dollars away from companies who plant favorable stories and dress them up as ‘popular’ acclaim. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in January 2013, by doing one, a citizen might be doing both.