Menus Subscribe Search

A Conversation With

reddit-stickers

(Photo: Eva Blue/Flickr)

Outing Advertisers: A Conversation With Reddit’s HailCorporate

• February 26, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Eva Blue/Flickr)

Paul Hiebert talks to the moderators of the community that tries to keep the site’s exchange free from marketers disguised as honest users.

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.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

More From Paul Hiebert

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.