Google, where the video claims the branded images were prominently placed, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The controversy is the latest example to raise questions about how information infiltrates the digital space, with the potential to influence the public’s perception of companies, public figures and events. The risks include consuming disinformation, like the viral video last week that altered Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s speech, and being influenced by commercial advertising, including online ads that are targeted specifically for you.
In its video describing the “Top of Images” campaign, North Face claimed it replaced images on Wikipedia pages for various locations, like Guarita State Park in Brazil and the Storr, a rocky hill on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The new photos featured the company’s products, such as a backpack, hiking gear and camping tents.
In its statement, the Wikimedia Foundation emphasized its goal of presenting neutral information. It said volunteers had removed or cropped out the branded images.
“When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry,” the statement said. “Adding content that is solely for commercial promotion goes directly against the policies, purpose and mission of Wikipedia to provide neutral, fact-based knowledge to the world.”
Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, called the advertising strategy “wildly misguided.” And while some online speculated that the campaign may have been designed to go viral the way it did, he rejected the idea that any publicity is good publicity.
“They completely, absolutely, egregiously violated just about every principle you can think about with respect to trying to maintain consumer trust,” he said.