Company bribes its fans to secretly flood websites with praise

What would you say if you knew a company had identified people who post a lot about its product online, tracked them down, invited them on a junket where they were wined and dined, and then sent them back off into the world to say as many nice things as possible?

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines is doing it. According to Consumerist, it found 50 people who posted a lot about Royal Caribbean cruises, recruited them, and now their posts are "carefully monitored" to ensure that they "remain positive and frequent." But even though these posters are shilling for the cruise line, they never identify themselves as doing so.

They're called the Royal Caribbean Champions, and they're just another reason why you can't trust a thing you read in reader forums anymore.

Companies see activity like this as "viral," and it's true that nurturing your best customers is just good business. But I see this particular under-the-radar inducement to monitor their postings as deceptive, particularly because the posters never tell you they've been figuratively bribed with freebies to spout praise. Two months ago, electronics manufacturer Belkin was nabbed doing a similar thing using

Two years ago, I took the Liberty of the Seas out of New York City to cover the megaship's launch for the New York Post. Although I really enjoyed the ship's nearly identical older sister, Freedom of the Seas, I had some frank things to say about corner-cutting on the new vessel. Royal Caribbean must have known it was going to be facing some questioning reviews like mine. I didn't know it, but on the very same journey I was taking, perhaps even at the next dining table over, the Royal Caribbean Champions were being schmoozed and groomed. When I disembarked to write my story, the Champions went forth to be fruitful.

Public relations tactics like this degrade value all around. First of all, all the websites that these minions are posting on (we can't know all of them because they don't identify themselves) are rendered less trustworthy and therefore less useful. As I have said before, our ability to use the web as a research tool is diminished when we don't know which sites are padded and which are truthful. (For the record,, which was the only website cited as a major hub for the Champions, wrote in support of my disapproving assessment of the Liberty of the Seas.)

The other problem is that now that word has leaked out, this activity makes Royal Caribbean look desperate. In my opinion, some quibbles aside, Royal Caribbean is a truly excellent product, and I personally have more fun on it than many of the other cruise lines out there. But shenanigans like this (following on other embarrassing fiascoes by the line) make the line seem starving for good reviews. Royal Caribbean has paid to send undercover boosters among us. When I have something nice to say, and there's plenty of nice things to day, I don't want people to accuse me of being one of them.

Since Royal Caribbean itself didn't have anything to say within the Consumerist post, I sent a rep the link to the story and asked if he'd like to make an official comment about the Champions. That was a couple of days ago. No response. I guess if you want to hear what the cruise line has to say, you'll have to read message board posts from its secret moles.

Update: Royal Caribbean is still ignoring me, but it elected to contact one travel industry blogger at Tripso to dispute some facts in her longer exposé, and the resulting article can be read here. Meanwhile, blogger Edward Hasbrouck talks about how companies have been intentionally targeting travel review sites for years, citing a 2006 travel exec conference at which strategies were outlined: "people are paid to spend months, in between assignments, creating profiles and posting "neutral" messages to establish a credible online persona and background from which to post their secretly-paid advertising messages."

As for, where many of the Champions were recruited and spent their time posting (and where editors apparently knew it was happening), the fur has really been flying on the message boards, which have turned into an all-out witch hunt for Royal Caribbean's spam-shillers.
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