Last week there was a brouhaha (or twitter storm) about a website with Shell branding which made preposterous comments about drilling for oil in the arctic. Some were taken in by it, others quickly spotted that it was a spoof. The truly shocking aspect of the whole affair was the number of people who thought it was a new and novel idea.
Back in 2001, animal rights activists set up a spoof website attacking the Bank of New York for its work for Huntingdon Life Sciences, a medical research firm that conducts research on animals. The site, called BankofNYKills.com, was a replica of the Bank of New York’s website with the content changed to highlight the activists’ grievances. BankofNYKills.com spoof website wasn’t the first of its kind by a long shot. The practice is as old as corporate websites.
What has changed since then is how well coordinated the best spoofs are. The recent mocking of Shell reached public consciousness around the Rio+20 summit, where arctic oil exploration has been a big issue. The spoof website was just one tactic forming part of a broad range of articles, tweets, Facebook messages and videos designed to keep awareness high.
Companies’ fear of spoofing is very real. Back in January, the FT reported that Blackstone Group had hired a firm to purchase hostile domain names, including the wonderful blackstonesucks.com. The hope is to purchase all the spoof-able domain names before activists are able to use them. It’s a tactic that costs a lot and is destined to fail.
In reality, there’s little companies can do to stop spoof sites from springing up. People are creative and domain names are abundant (and growing). Companies can move quickly to have sites taken down, but with the speed of distribution that social media makes possible, it’s likely that the spoof will have achieved its goal before it’s taken down.
Ultimately, if a spoof site gains traction, then you’re probably facing a well planned campaign and focusing on the site isn’t the solution. You still need to acknowledge and deal with the spoof, but you’ve got a bigger reputation issue to deal with.