Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Spoof Twitter Accounts: Marketing Headache or The New Satire?

The Queen and Mark Zuckerberg have one. George Osborne (though only when drunk) has one. EvenAngelina Jolie’s right leg has one. Spoof celeb Twitter accounts are taking their place in satire, and becoming the new Spitting Image. And they’re not always unwelcome: Iain Duncan Smith was reportedly unfazed by his spoof alter-ego tweeting such insights as “Last night was messssyyyy!!!! Nothing beats G-A-Y on a Saturday night with Theresa May”.

Sometimes, the laissez faire approach is the best one to take. Being too heavy handed with satirists can make you look humourless at best, and aggressive at worst. But there is a line between spoofing a celebrity (or brand) and impersonating them, however blurred. The spoof @QantasPR account wassuspended by Twitter after Qantas complained that it was ‘confusing customers’, which goes againstTwitter’s rule that: “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others”. 

However, Twitter recognises the value of these parody accounts and their loyal followers, and has actually created guidelines for them, which emphasise that the spoof account should be named as such (e.g .‘@NotCelebrity’) and that the bio should clearly state that the account is a parody. 
Cricketer Shane Warne was among those to be fooled by the spoof account, when Qantas lost his luggage in January this year. reports him tweeting: “I thought you were meant to look after Australians, not be sarcastic…You too often are late, cancel flights and lose luggage.” He followed it up with: “Actually your lack of sympathy towards all those passengers you left stranded is quite simply staggering. SORRY might help everyone.”

The spoof of 2011 (and my personal favourite) was the much-loved @ShippamsPaste (“hi i used to be the social media EXECUTIVE intern for shippams paste!!! i tweeted to help you engage with our brand!!! but it turned out i wasnt real ”). There was much debate about whether the tweets were ‘brilliant parody’ from the brand itself, but in fact “Ben”, the social media intern (later promoted to ‘social media EXECUTIVE intern’) behind the account turned out to be Ed Jefferson, an account manager from London. Shippam’s felt they were losing control of how the brand was portrayed online. ‘Ben’ was getting real questions from consumers, and answering them ("theres no vegetarian pastes sorry but why not try the crab spread its only crabs"). As a result, Twitter ordered Ben to make the joke clear, and in November 2011 the tweets stopped. Shippam’s spokesperson Paul Smith, quoted on the BBC, showed the brand ‘got the joke’, saying: “I know people will miss Ben. He really touched a chord with people.” 

Less funny, perhaps (from the brand’s perspective at least), is BP’s spoof account, @bpglobalpr. Tweets such as: “ATTN Smokers: Do you love messing with carcinogens, but you hate the taste? Eat gulf shrimp! #FDA #bpcares” and (this in response to a concerned consumer) “We're sorry you're upset. Please send us your address to receive a free* "bp cares" t-shirt? *$25 shipping” can’t help an already troubled reputation. 

Where spoof accounts really have the potential to do reputational damage is when they are mistakenly picked up by media. There were red faces across CNN and Huffington Post recently when both titles reported stories based on tweets from an account that claimed to be from North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue. In the UK, the Media blog reports a Daily Mail story that Katie Price had used her Twitter account to take a swipe at new mum Stacey Solomon (the tweet actually came from a spoof account @MissKatiePriice. The real Ms Price then took her own swipe at the Daily Mail for not checking sources properly).

Faking tweets isn’t completely alien to Ms Price, who found herself at the centre of an advertising-based Twitter storm, when Mars used her to send ‘out of character’ tweets on the Eurozone debt. The tweets ended with a picture of her eating a Snickers bar, with the line: “You’re not you when you’re hungry @snickersUk #hungry #spon”. While the campaign was cleared by the ASA, ads were criticised for not marking clearly that they were sponsored. 

The truth is that many spoof accounts are very funny – and make much better reading than the marketing puff of the original. There’s a lesson here for marketers – humour travels. But it’s not always a pleasant experience, so here’s our advice on how to deal with a spoof Twitter account:

1. Make it harder to spoof in the first place. Own your brand name on Twitter, and all reasonable variations of it, and manage the account so it’s visible. 

2. Decide whether your reputation will suffer more damage by the spoof account, or by shutting it down (remember Nestle’s attempt to remove Greenpeace content from YouTube?). Abusive, offensive or spammy tweets from an account that purports to be from your brand is going to do you harm, and should be shut down. If it’s funny, or harmless, you could look overly confrontational by reporting it. Consider asking the account holder to make clear that the account is a spoof, to avoid genuine confusion. 

3. If you feel you are being impersonated (as opposed to gently ridiculed) report it to Twitter by filing a report ticket. Twitter lists: brandmark and trademark complains; breach of privacy; copyright complaints; impersonation; name squatting among its terms violations (and of course all illegal, pornographic or spam content).  

Twitter do have a verification system in place to confirm whether an account holder is who they claim to be. Any account with a blue verified badge on their Twitter profile is a verified account.  Whether or not is effective, free to use -  or indeed in operation - is a moot point, as the recent case of the (verified) @Wendy_Deng account demonstrated in January this year.  In fact, tweets such as (to Ricky Gervais): "i think you look HOT ricky!!! (sssh dont tell @rupertmurdoch!)" weren’t coming from Murdoch’s wife at all but a bored British man living in London.  

However, let’s not be too hard on Twitter for that one.  Apparently, even News International was initially fooled:

“A News International spokeswoman said that she had had many conversations about the authenticity of Rupert Murdoch's account on Monday and if she confirmed the Wendi Deng fake account to be genuine late in the day, it was an accident.”