🔦 spotlight on astroturfing

sponcon for your boss

Has your boss ever asked you to RT something from the company account, or encouraged you to write a review of your company’s product online? You know the drill.

These requests - typically framed as “asks” but could just as easily be a “volunt-told” scenario - are a casual way that the relationship between employer and employee is exploited online. It’s subtle - just a couple of quick clicks - but even just “smashing the LIKE button,” crosses a blurry boundary between our digital personas and our on-the-clock work selves by spilling over into (onto?) a personal social media account.

Who are we online? Partial ambassadors to our employers? Implicitly, perhaps. Some people like (love, even!) to affiliate with who they work for, others do not. It’s a personal preference. And that’s the thing - it’s personal. Until it’s not.


The assumption that your support or visible championship of your employer is a natural extension of the employment relationship is as dreadful as it is normalized. Employees are not necessarily champions of an entire institution, nor should they be expected to be.

In a small team setting, these seemingly harmless asks also create a great deal of implicit pressure among your “work fam.” Your participation in the digital amplification of your company’s is extremely visible. Until it’s not.

Anyways, the expectation to re-tweet, post, like, comment on, or leave a review for your workspace is a drag. And it’s depressing to reflect on how our employers both encourage us to state that our “views are our own,” online while also unreservedly colonizing our personal social spaces with their branded content.

Imagine the equivalent at a party: every now and then, your friend intermittently blurts out facts about their firm or how fantastic it is to work there. Um, cool?

If an employee is doing marketing for their company, it’s labour.

Walmart has taken the opportunity to leverage the social media accounts of their employees to the next level.

Spotlight, which the company began testing this fall, remakes Walmart employees into public-facing company advocates. It’s an outgrowth of Walmart’s My Local Social program, which asked volunteer employees to post on behalf of their local stores.

They are compelling their employees to offer free content on their personal social media accounts, and not compensating people for these posts.

For now, the Spotlight program is still small — but over the next few years, Walmart is looking to expand it to its nearly 1.5 million U.S. associates.

Let me state the obvious - 1.5 million people is a lot of people.

Facebook advertising costs, on average, $0.97 per click and $7.19 per 1000 impressions. Ad campaigns focused on earning likes or app downloads can expect to pay $1.07 per like and $5.47 per download, on average.

So let’s say each post from a Spotlight “volunteer” has an average value of $3, and that each volunteer posts 1/month, for a total of 12 posts.

= 12*3*1500000 = $54,000,000 or $54M in “free,” undisclosed advertising.

*Roughly 500 people are currently enrolled in the program, so the current estimate is something like: 12*3*500 = $18,000. ✉️

Posting on My Local Social is a volunteer gig — although employees can win items like pins or t-shirts

Wow! A pin OR a t-shirt. That you can wear in your volunteer ad!

They (the employees) also don’t have to disclose these posts as ads since they ~technically~ aren’t paid, which is gross insidious advertising.

Right now, only salaried employees can become Spotlight influencers. The hourly workers who make up the bulk of Walmart’s staff are not yet eligible.

Notice that **only** salaried workers can become influencers with the spotlight program. Perhaps that is because it’s easier to squeeze additional expectations in the mix of someone salaried.

It’s not only Walmart being sly in this space.

Walmart is part of a growing cohort of retailers that have recruited employees to showcase the positive sides of their companies. Dunkin’ is compensating four retail employees to post TikToks on the job, and GameStop recently tried to get its employees to participate in dance challenges on the app. Even Amazon has an army of “FC ambassadors” — warehouse workers that are paid to tweet corporate talking points about life inside Amazon fulfillment centers._

It’s almost like some employers are exploiting workers as social media bots.

PS. Remember that TikTok paint guy that got fired? At least he was posting his videos from a place of personal passion.

These new programs are troubling. For one, they seem to disproportionately take advantage of retail workers; who tend to skew young. This is a generation that may already associate the use of social media with a goal of monetization. Sponsorship and associated affirmations (such as likes or new followers) could be a personally held goal.

So when the company that you work for encourages you to post relevant content, though they may not be paying you ~financially~ for that material, there is an implicit incentive to engage online for clout. The sneaky sponcon is basically a marketing scheme that flouts the guidelines that exist to ensure transparency between the poster and the viewer.

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🏛️ regs

💸 riches

  • Incentivizing or nudging your employees to post engaging online content for you at no additional charge (save lame swag) is a mega saving money tactic;

  • It also contributes to a faux authenticity online, which is valuable.

😜 What does Loblaw have to do with this?

A post shared by No Frills (@haulhard)
i.e. this “haulhard” video that was uploaded to encourage people to share the #ACartApartChallenge on TikTok - were these employees paid to dance for their employer, or is it all part of a hard day’s work?

Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.