Magazine article Marketing

Wide Open to the Web Warriors

Magazine article Marketing

Wide Open to the Web Warriors

Article excerpt

Activists are using the internet to fight large companies over ethical issues. Yet many major brand-owners lack a clear counter-strategy.

Earlier this month a group of environmental activists staged a sit-in at Shell's London offices. Although Shell turned the power off and cut the phone lines, activist Roddy Mansfield broadcast the protest live to the internet and e-mailed the press, using a digital camera, laptop computer and mobile phone.

This is just one example of a growing trend, whereby protesters and activists are turning to the internet as quick, cheap and effective way of reaching mill ions of people.

Many of the web sites are primitive, but their message is clear and, for some brands, dangerous. 'Boycott' and 'ban' are the two most common phrases used by many of the anti-brand sites.

Whereas a few years ago these messages were confined to pamphlets or placards, the web has given millions access to the campaigns - and it seems that their corporate targets are unable or unwilling to act against them.

For almost three years, the McSpotlight site (www.mcspotlight.org) has carried material ruled in 1997 to libel McDonald's. Posted on the site is an exact copy of the leaflet, What's Wrong With McDonald's?, that provoked the fast-food giant to successfully sue Helen Steel and Dave Morris, of London Greenpeace, for libel.

Yet, despite spending an estimated [pounds]10m on the long-running 'McLibel' case, McDonald's has taken no action against McSpotlight for publishing the same material on the internet, which can be downloaded and distributed. No one at the company was willing to outline its strategy for dealing with internet protest or to explain how it plans to protect its brand in the future from similar web onslaughts.

McDonald's and Shell are not alone in being attacked in this way. Many large multinationals, including Procter & Gamble, have had their names dragged through the online mud. But there are complex arguments about legal defences and how brand owners can fight the web agitators.

Many opt for the head-in-the-sand approach, hoping that if they ignore it, it will go away. But the sites are out there, and thousands of people see them every day.

The internet has ceased to be a fringe environment: Market Tracking International estimates there were 78 million internet users worldwide in 1998 and this will grow to 180 million by 2002. In Europe, International Data Corporation estimates that 23 million people were using the internet in 1998 and that 83 million will do so in 2002. Datamonitor believes a third of European homes will have access to the internet by 2003.

Setting up a web site is easy and cheap. With the information available worldwide at the click of a mouse, the impact can be huge - some protest sites receive a million visitors each month.

Although it may not be the case for much longer, publishing online has not generally faced the restrictions placed on traditional media, such as reporting conventions, owners' fear of litigation and a dependence on advertisers.

Henley Centre consultant Chad Wollen has monitored the rise of internet activism. He says: "Taking the US as the bellwether, it is something that's going to grow."

The emergence of companies such as eWatch in the US confirms the phenomenon. Located at www.ewatch.com, it tracks discussion taking place on the internet about major brands (see graph).

BA site takes off

Mikko Takala is webmaster of a site called no-way-ba.lochness.co.uk, set up to protest BA's year-old move to replace its Inverness-Heathrow route with a flight out of Gatwick, a change campaigners believe is damaging to the Highlands' economy. "Doing it this way we have a greater chance," he explains.

"The secret to online campaigning is using a combination of the web and usenet [online discussion groups] to identify interested groups - in this case travel and Scottish interest groups. …

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