Two months ago, an "Arctic Ready" website appeared online. Festooned with Shell Oil's logo, it purported to be a site dedicated to educating the public about Shell's drilling for oil up North. It even included an interactive "social media" component -- an "ad generator" allowing visitors to caption photos supposedly provided by Shell. It looked a lot like Shell's own Arctic-focused section of its site. But it is and was a fake, created by anti-Shell groups -- Greenpeace and the Yes Men. And despite the fact that it has been reported as fake repeatedly, visitors continue to be duped by it and so it continues to generate controversy for Shell.
Last month, Greenpeace, the Yes Men, and members of the Occupy movement used YouTube to make a supposed Shell event gone horribly wrong -- that they had staged -- go viral. This week, they created a fake Shell "social media response team" Twitter account to make ads generated by their Arctic Ready website go viral. The account pretended to be frantically trying to contain the spread of ads created on the fake site. Those drawn to the site, thinking it was real, thought it was a case of social media going horribly wrong, with "Shell's" ad generator resulting in "embarrassing" ads like these...
... and Shell's "social media team" being as inept in their attempts to control the spread as BP was in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Our team is working overtime to remove inappropriate ads. Please stop sharing them," tweeted the fake @ShellIsPrepared account over and over again at multiple Twitter users. Multiple people started retweeting the account noting it as an example of corporate social media gone horribly wrong and "possibly the funniest PR disaster I've ever witnessed." (It is but not in the way the person thought.) "Anyone hiring a social media manager? Whoever runs @ShellisPrepared is going to be looking for work soon," tweeted one person.
"Ain’t the way it works guys," tweeted influential journalist Marc Ambinder, retweeting this from the account: "RT
@shellisprepared: PLEASE DO NOT RETWEET ANY OF OUR TWEETS. They are intended for their @ recipients only!"
(He later realized he'd been snookered.)
Greenpeace has apparently discovered that it's far more effective to ram Shell online than it is to send Greenpeace boats out to protest or to handcuff themselves to drilling equipment in the snow. Combining a fake corporate site with a fake corporate reaction seems to legitimize the content, and convince or at least confuse most people on Twitter who have limited attention spans.
Shell's real attempts to contain it have been lackluster, in part because they likely fear bringing any more attention to the critical content.
"Journalists, blog readers and YouTube viewers have recently been targeted with scams launched by organizations opposed to energy exploration in Alaska. A contest on a mock Shell website promotes the creation of fake advertisements. A video purports to show a bungled corporate PR event at the Seattle Space Needle. And a false press release claimed that the company is considering legal action against the scam campaign," says Shell in a statement. "The advertising contest is not associated with Shell, and neither is the site it’s on. And Shell did not file legal action in this matter. Our focus is on safely executing our operations."
William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota has been critical of the law on web site impersonations "because the rules are so murky."
"Shell would have a pretty strong case under traditional trademark law," he says by email. "Most courts would simply judge whether people coming to the site would be confused about its connection to Shell. Under this approach, a parody generally escapes liability if it announces itself as a joke quickly."
The Arctic Ready site doesn't announce itself as a joke, though the polar bear holding another polar bear's head in its jaw is kind of a giveaway.
"Because culture jamming uses that period of uncertainty about reality in order to make its point, it doesn't do well under traditional trademark rules," says McGeveran. "That said, companies like Shell are usually smart enough to know that legal action will only draw attention to the hoax and cause more long-lasting PR damage. It's similar to how defamation lawsuits often do more harm than good by dragging out the original story all over again."
Scott Stratten at the UnMarketing Blog implores those on social media to check their facts before broadcasting, but I suspect his plea will fall on deaf and busy ears. If Shell doesn't successfully take legal action to get that fake website taken down, it can probably expect to be "drilled" again, as future visitors to the site who haven't been exposed to media coverage like this continue to think it's real.