Which comes first, a viral link or a sponsored ad?
If you’re a Facebook user, you may have come across links to the 1-Gallon Tuscan Whole Milk and the Hutzler Banana Slicer posted by your friends. Both are Amazon product links and have very funny reviews.
I had no suspicions regarding this link, as it was shared by three of my close friends (one is not linked to the other two) and the reviews were actually quite entertaining. I assumed it was a link gone viral, but then I noticed that it kept appearing again and again at the top of my newsfeed. That is when I noticed that it was in fact, a sponsored ad.
That made me wonder if it became a sponsored ad after it became so popular, or if it was sponsored from the start. The most popular review for the Tuscan milk was written by a person named Edgar who did not write any other reviews since 2008, when this review was written. Here is a screenshot of Edgar’s profile page.
The other reviewers who show up on the first page (because of how many people found their reviews helpful) also had very lyrical, funny reviews, but the writing style for the milk was very different from their other product reviews. Seemed a little fishy.
Curiosity warrants some research, so I did a quick search about Tucson milk and Amazon, and found that the silly review was started by some guys on Slashdot, starting a trend of elaborate reviews of banal objects (according to Onyx Mousse). The New York Times reported on it in 2006 and David Pogue also blogged about it in 2010. The unique reviews were also discussed on CNN Money in 2011. So why is Tucson milk back and making rampant rounds on Facebook? The bigger question is: did Amazon make a sponsored link after the link went viral, or did it contribute to making the link viral by making it a sponsored link?
At the same time, feel slightly queasy about how advertising in social media can be very deceptive; I would think that few people would notice that the link is sponsored because their friend is posting it. I think Amazon was smart to incorporate these reviews as sponsored links to draw people’s attention to the site, but whether or not that actually helped milk sales or other Amazon product sales is an open question.