Outing Advertisers: A Conversation With Reddit's HailCorporate

Paul Hiebert talks to the moderators of the community that tries to keep the site's exchange free from marketers disguised as honest users.
Publish date:
Social count:
Paul Hiebert talks to the moderators of the community that tries to keep the site's exchange free from marketers disguised as honest users.
(Photo: Eva Blue/Flickr)

(Photo: Eva Blue/Flickr)

With over 100 million unique visitors from around the world per month, Reddit, the self-described front page of the Internet, has become a guiding force in determining which content gets covered by various news outlets and shared on social media, and which content becomes forsaken, left to grow cold and unappreciated on some server somewhere. The site's basic structure: Users submit posts, which are then either up-voted or down-voted by other users, thus increasing or decreasing a post’s visibility.

For marketers, the site represents opportunity. In recent years, Reddit has witnessed an apparent upswing in users with dubious intent submitting genuine advertisements disguised as regular posts. Oreo, Taco Bell, Subaru, and plenty of other companies are all suspected of foul play. The upside of having your brand's name and image go viral, it seems, is simply too good to turn down.

But this is where the subreddit r/HailCorporate comes in. With over 30,000 subscribers, the community aims to protect Reddit's sincere exchange of everything from cat GIFs to NSFW pics to breaking news of political upheaval in Ukraine by calling out potential infiltrators whose sole purpose is to promote a product. To learn more, we interviewed three moderators of r/HailCorporate who go by the usernames KingContext, Pravusmentis, and Skitrel. Here's what they said.

When and why did r/HailCorporate begin?

Pravusmentis: A few weeks before Halloween a few years ago, I noticed many posts had an ad-like twang to their taste. I don't know why I made it. Perhaps to have a place to document these "ads" to show others (if they asked, which they never did) that ad-like posts do happen on Reddit.

Skitrel: Originally, r/HailCorporate was more satirical than serious. The aim was to educate and expose problems with advertising on the site, while at the same time providing a form of entertainment. The community, however, grew too quickly (many thousands in a short period), and we lost control of the message. Not recognizing that r/HailCorporate was satire, some members became rude and aggressive toward people on other subreddits. Things had to get far more serious as the community grew, and it admittedly still has some problems. It's quite hard to spread an important message if your audience hates you, no matter how good your message might be.

How have marketers gotten better at advertising on Reddit over the years?

KingContext: By studying stuff like this.

Skitrel: Manipulation on Reddit doesn't have to go far. Group voting is rife, since a small amount of people can make something visible enough to get hundreds or thousands of upvotes if the content is good enough. The first hour of a post's life is critical, and they abuse this.

Pravusmentis: The obvious tells of brand-new accounts and users only talking about the product they're pushing are long gone. A clever person (and there are clever people) can do much to avoid being caught for cheating the system. You or I could do it with a small amount of resources and know-how, and few would ever be able to discover what we did.

When r/HailCorporate started, were marketers uploading disingenuous posts at the same frequency as today, or have things gotten worse?

KingContext: I've seen a slow yet steady increase. As the site grows, the quality, along with the average user's intelligence and age, drops. Marketers are swooping in on an increasingly fertile environment.

Skitrel: In my opinion, r/HailCorporate has helped improve things on Reddit. Back then you would see a large number of posts from friends of companies or friends of employees of companies. You could never guarantee that these were businesses posing as legitimate users, but it was often eyebrow-raising.

"Ultimately, the point is to encourage people to become more aware and to really ask why they like a particular product or feel the need to tell others about it."

Today there are many marketers, employees, community managers, game developers, and so on who interact on Reddit, but fully disclose who they are. This kind of advertising is good. There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone advertising for a company if done openly and honestly. The big problem is deceptive marketing and pretending to be something you aren't. While I think it would be arrogant for r/HailCorporate to take credit for the rise of honest advertising on Reddit, I do think the subreddit played a part in exposing the negative forms of advertising.

Pravusmentis: No comment. No metric to measure it. No way to prove validity.

Can you expand on this idea, as stated on your subreddit's homepage, that r/HailCorporate is based on the principle that "popular culture has permeated so far into our own lives that we ourselves are acting unknowing as shills for a multitude of things"?

Skitrel: There are two sides to this: the good and the bad.

First, we all use and like a variety of products. That's OK. Liking a product is OK. We recommend products to other people all the time based on liking it.

The second side, however, is about manipulation. We're bombarded with advertising from all angles, and the average individual doesn't understand the extreme depths advertisers go to manipulate them.

Ultimately, the point is to encourage people to become more aware and to really ask why they like a particular product or feel the need to tell others about it. People often name-drop a product to show off. It's a negative form of advertising in that a company has successfully made an individual feel the need to express his or her ego via the company's brand, be it mobile phones, computers, or beer.

Pravusmentis: People who wear T-shirts with big logos is an obvious example. People do things of that nature without realizing it.

KingContext: Individuals are basically brainwashed into being unpaid, mobile advertisements. Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But the term accurately describes what's going on: deliberate and planned mental manipulation of as many people as possible. This includes the practice of "stealth" or "native" marketing that is becoming more and more prevalent online. It's sleazy, Hollywood bad guy-type behavior, and sadly it's rampant.

Can ads disguised as posts ever be beneficial for the Reddit community, or are they always bad?

Pravusmentis: In my opinion, they are always bad because they are inherently dishonest. I want organic content from Web peers, not pseudo-organic content made at a content farm.

Skitrel: I don't know. You could probably take this to the extreme with an example of charitable advertising and make some form of utilitarian argument, but I think stealth advertising is bad because it's seeking to manipulate individuals via deception. Whether that's done in the form of entertainment is irrelevant; it's still an attempt to manipulate.

Note my choice of the word “manipulate” here. I believe good advertising (the open and honest kind) attempts to influence, not manipulate. The recipient knows both the company and the motives involved.

Remember: Every single successful product that exists is only successful due to reaching a target market through advertising. You can have the greatest product in the world, but it's useless if nobody knows about it. There's no way to justify living off the comforts of modern society while at the same time stating that all advertising is evil. It isn't.

Sometimes your subreddit appears quite unpopular with the general Reddit population because people think you're always taking the fun out of everything by constantly looking for conspiracies. How do you respond to that characterization?

Pravusmentis: No one wants to be lied to. People also tend to react to unpleasant truths with anger. We try to present the facts with no sensationalism, and let others make up their own minds.

But studies show people can ignore evidence when it goes against something they believe to be true. Some people refuse to believe that big companies would bother submitting ads to Reddit and think we're crazy.

However, if a conspiracy is just one group of people trying to sway another group of people, then the world is full of conspiracies. To think that any marketing company wouldn't want to save money while easily reaching millions of people is a foolish thought.

How do disingenuous posts from marketers hurt the Reddit community?

Skitrel: Users of any online community are influenced by what's already present in that community. General human nature dictates that most people attempt to fit in. This is especially true for a site like Reddit, where what works and what doesn't work is made obvious via karma. So the more ads-hidden-as-posts, the more likely genuine users will try to imitate them.

KingContext: In theory, it hurts Reddit financially. The site's owners aren't getting paid for the formal ad-space. It also hurts content quality.

As Reddit acquires more users and becomes a bigger part of mainstream culture, won't this prominence also attract more marketers? If so, what do you think will happen to Reddit in the future?

Skitrel: The largest subreddits will become dominated by advertising and mainstream culture, but the smaller subreddits that cater to niches will not. The reward for advertisers succeeding in smaller subreddits is simply not high enough when they can devote less effort for greater reward elsewhere.

Also, Reddit isn't any one community anymore; it's merely a platform for communities.

KingContext: See the plot of Idiocracy.