In practice, the campaign was simple: take photos of people wearing the North Face gear in iconic vacation spots, and then upload those images to the destinations’ Wikipedia pages. After all, anyone can edit on Wikipedia—that’s the site’s hallmark. And since Wikipedia entries often appear at the top of Google results, every time someone searched, say, Guarita State Park in Brazil, the first image that popped up would be of a person wearing a TNF jacket or backpack. It was some of the world’s best, cheapest advertising.
On Tuesday, AdAge published a story detailing the marketing campaign, a collaboration between the Leo Burnett ad agency and the North Face Brazil. Essentially, the brand had commissioned photos of models wearing its gear in a handful of highly searched vacation destinations, like the aforementioned Guarita State Park, and then uploaded those photos to Wikipedia, replacing the unbranded, user-submitted photos.
A TNF-branded marketing video, produced by an arm of Leo Burnett, bragged: “We hacked the results to reach one of the most difficult places: the top of the world’s largest search engine, paying absolutely nothing, just by collaborating with Wikipedia.”
A TNF spokesperson explained to Outside that TNF Brazil is an “independent distributor,” meaning the company does not fall under VF, the North Face's parent company, but instead is merely licensed to market and sell TNF gear in Brazil. She said that Leo Burnett had first reached out to TNF Brazil in November, but does not know exactly how long the team had been actively replacing Wikipedia images. Since TNF Brazil is not under the VF corporate umbrella, it did not need to get approval from TNF headquarters before going ahead with the campaign.
On Wednesday, TNF headquarters issued a formal apology. “We believe deeply in Wikipedia’s mission and integrity—and apologize for engaging in activity inconsistent with those principles,” the statement reads. “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.”