US retail giant The North Face has apologised for a publicity stunt that exploited Wikipedia.
The outdoor clothing seller teamed with agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made in a bid to top Google's search results by - as it says in an ill-advised brag video - "Paying absolutely nothing for it. Just by collaborating with Wikipedia."
The North Face had photographs taken of people wearing its gear in climbing and tramping hotspots such as Brazil's Guarita State Park, Peru's Huayna Picchu and Cuillin in Scotland.
It then had someone go in and edit the Wikipedia entries for those locations, swapping out the existing photos for North Face ones - knowing full well that whenever a budding tourist searches for pictures of a location, a Wikipedia image is often at the top of the list.
The jape succeeded - at least in terms of getting The North Face photos to the top of search results, without having to pay Google a penny for Ad Words.
But then the backlash began.
Wikipedia's official Twitter account posted:
"Yesterday, we were disappointed to learn that @thenorthface and @LeoBurnett unethically manipulated Wikipedia. They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived consumer stunt."
The non-profit site, which relies on donations and the ethics of volunteer contributors, added, "Wikipedia and the @Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claimed. In fact, what they did was akin to defacing public property.
"This is a surprising direction from The North Face, as their stated mission is to 'support the preservation of the outdoors' — a public good held in trust for all of us."
A barrage of comments followed, universally condemning The North Face.
"We did what no one has done before," the company bragged in its video.
Its social media savaging showed why.
The North Face issued a mea culpa soon after, posting: "We believe deeply in Wikipedia's mission and integrity–and apologise 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."
And Leo Burnett Tailor Made followed suit with its own corporate-speak statement, telling Ad Age, "We're always looking for creative ways to meet consumers where they are. We've since learned that this effort worked counter to Wikipedia's community guidelines. Understanding the issue, we ended the campaign.
"Our team has further accepted an invitation by Wikipedia to learn more about the platform and their work to share unbiased, fact-based knowledge. We look forward to working with Wikipedia to engage with them, and with respect to their network of volunteer editors, better in the future."
Tech commentatory and owner of the NZ-based Cactus Outdoors owner Ben Kepes said, "The outdoor industry has always been one in which people who have a love and respect for the outdoors find their home - not primarily for commercial reasons but because they want to help others experience what they love.
"The sad reality, however, is that when large corporations acquire these mission-led businesses, dollars generally come first and this ill-advised campaign is an example of that."
Social media marketing expert Vaughn Davis said, "While on the face of it this probably looked like a cool little stunt when the agency pitched it to its client, it comes across as a global ad agency and a global retailer ganging up on a not-for-profit website loved by millions around the world… but good luck to them at the ad awards."