Astroturfing refers to an orchestrated expression of support for a cause, product, service or policy designed to give the impression of a grassroots movement.
Under Australian law, if a business engages in this type of practice and misleads consumers, it breaches both the law and the advertising code of ethics.
There have been a few publicised instances of astroturfing in Australia, including the most recent revelation that opponents of plain cigarette packaging, the Alliance of Australian Retailers, was a front for Big Tobacco.
In 2004, Westfield paid $3.5m to Kirela to settle a law suit alleging the former had hired a PR company to set up the North Strathfield Residents' Action Group to oppose Kirela's development of a new retail centre in Strathfield, which would have competed with Westfield's Burwood centre.
Most of the cases have been in the political activism space, but now the rapid rise in the use of a variety of social media platforms by businesses to promote their brands and products online has created an environment ripe for the phenomenon of astroturfing.
What is designed to appear to be a genuine grassroots movement or groundswell of support is in fact a sophisticated and carefully targeted PR campaign. The term is derived from the brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like real grass: AstroTurf.
While it is understandable that a business may be tempted to engage in astroturfing to fashion a groundswell of support for its products or services, it is worth remembering that such activity carries a double risk. Not only could it expose the company to legal action for misleading consumers – the other gamble is that once the artificial nature of the support movement has been revealed, the ruse will completely backfire and destroy any goodwill which has been created.