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Internet stealth marketing rampant, 'hard to detect' on social media

This screenshot from Instagram shows a post by an internet marketing firm employee posing as a regular person to drive traffic to the company's website. The post has been deleted.

TOKYO -- The internet marketing industry is warning that new forms of stealth marketing can be extremely hard to detect, after one online ad firm staffer was found posing as a regular Instagram user to send followers to her company's website.

One popular form of internet advertising is "affiliate marketing," where regular people promote products online and earn commission for every sale made to visitors to their site. It costs the "affiliates" nothing and is easy to implement, and was apparently a primary revenue source for Fly Co., the outfit involved in the Instagram stealth marketing incident. There are also "affiliate service provider" (ASP) companies that ask websites and blogs to carry ads, and then collect a fee from the advertisers.

"It's the norm for advertisers, ASPs and marketing affiliates to collude on stealth marketing. In the latest incident, it was the affiliate firm on its own that carried out (stealth marketing) using social networking services," said Hokuto Kasai, head of the board of directors of the Japan Affiliate Organization (JAO), made up of major advertisers, ASPs and advertising affiliates. He added, "On social networking sites it's impossible to tell the difference between personal thoughts and advertising, and there's so much of it out there that it's hard to detect.

"There is an upside to affiliates posting content that's useful, as they can earn more (ad) income and the advertisers can put out ads that are really relevant to the consumer," Kasai continued.

The widespread use of stealth marketing has, for one, been a boon for those flogging "health foods" with dubious medical efficacy. The JAO examines ads with this kind of questionable content, but the organization failed to pick up on Fly Co.'s activities.

Instagram is overflowing with product "testimonials," and it is very difficult to tell if they are marketing ploys or genuine impressions. A search on Instagram for the hashtagged term "aojiru" (literally "green juice," often made with vegetables) -- the kind of product the Fly Co. staffer was promoting -- brought up more than 200,000 results. Among those posts are many, like those by the Fly Co. employee, claiming the drink has medical benefits.

(Japanese original by Kenichi Omura, General Digital News Center)

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