AdAge reports that North Face successfully placed advertising into articles at Wikipedia, without other editors of the publicly-editable encyclopedia noticing. This effectively allowed North Face to co-opt the site's enormous influence in Google search results.
According to the agency, the biggest obstacle of the campaign was updating the photos without attracting attention of Wikipedia moderators to sustain the brand's presence for as long as possible, as site editors could change them at any time.
The "hack" worked, at least for a while, evident in a quick Google search of some of the places mentioned in the campaign's case study video.
Soon after the North Face campaign was featured on AdAge, Wikipedia's volunteer editors were quick to remove North Face's photos, noting that the effort breached the site's user terms for paid advocacy.
North Face claimed to have "worked with" the Wikimedia Foundation, which immediately denied it and issued a damning statement of its own: Let's talk about The North Face defacing Wikipedia.
Yesterday, we were disappointed to learn that The North Face, an outdoor recreation product company, and Leo Burnett Tailor Made, an ad agency retained by The North Face, unethically manipulated Wikipedia. They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.
In a video about the campaign, Leo Burnett and The North Face boasted that they "did what no one has done before … we switched the Wikipedia photos for ours" and "[paid] absolutely nothing just by collaborating with Wikipedia."
The video was later published by AdAge, which said that the agency's "biggest obstacle" was in manipulating the site "without attracting attention [from] Wikipedia moderators."
Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims. In fact, what they did was akin to defacing public property, which is a surprising direction from The North Face. Their stated mission, "unchanged since 1966," is to "support the preservation of the outdoors"—a public good held in trust for all of us.
The photo embedded above is of Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park in Catalonia, Spain. Taken by David Iliff, a volunteer Wikimedia editor, "It was removed from Wikipedia by The North Face last month as part of its marketing stunt."
Here's a terrible deal on a mug at Amazon:
UPDATE: Jessica Hollister, Director of Public Relations at The North Face, wrote in:
We believe deeply in Wikipedia's mission and integrity–and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles. Effective immediately, we have ended the campaign and moving forward, we'll strive to do better and commit to ensuring that our teams and vendors are better trained on Wikipedia's site policies.