Samsung paying students for 'fake Web reviews' -- did it attack Apple, too?

April 17, 2013 7:29 AM EDT

Some stories just write themselves -- and when it comes to the Apple [AAPL] versus Samsung debate a recent FTC investigation in Taiwan suggests that those ever active pro-Android thread commentators may have an extra reason to extol their Galaxy above iPhone -- there's a chance they're getting paid to post.

Samsung investigated for false advertising against HTC

[ABOVE: How far does Samsung go? “I was pretty shocked at the appearance of the Galaxy S phone and the extent to which it appeared to copy Apple’s products. We went from having something easy to market because it was so distinctive and so famous to having something that was difficult to market,” Philip Schiller, Apple’s SVP of worldwide marketing, said during the Apple v. Samsung trial.]

Samsung talks 'fundamental principles'

Please don't misunderstand me -- this is only conjecture based on Samsung's admission that it paid people to criticise rival firm, HTC through comments slamming that company and its services posted online.

Samsung is alleged to have hired students to slam phones made by HTC.  Fair trade officials in Taiwan have launched an investigation into the company.

As you'd expect following the years in which Samsung has denied emulating Apple's products in its devices even while losing numerous cases claiming it did just that, Samsung is attempting to distance itself from its own actions, describing these as an "unfortunate incident" that go against its own "fundamental principles," according to the BBC.

The company's actions were suggested by a series of published documents that showed the company had been recruiting students to praise Samsung and slam HTC online.

Samsung now claims it has "ceased all marketing activities that involve the posting of anonymous comments," according to the report. Plus, in a move that’s bound to leave a few people in Cupertino laughing, Samsung also said: "All future marketing work would be more in line with its company philosophy of transparency and honesty."

So, that's OK, then…but is it? Is it really OK?

Where does it end?

Think about it.

We already know Samsung has moved to a position of smartphone dominance even in comparison to other members of the Android manufacturing community. The company invests huge piles of cash in chasing that dream, its marketing spend is far and away above that of anyone else in the industry. Now we learn that in at least one case that marketing spend has extended to paying people to say bad things about one of its competitors.

If it's prepared to mount such a campaign against HTC, then why would it not have also launched such activity against other competitors? Has it been engaged in such activity in its campaign against Apple?

Given Samsung's evident desire to paint this online campaign against HTC as a single "unfortunate" incident, it would be most surprising to see the firm come out and admit to other incidences of this devious form of false flag advertising.

There is no way I can claim or prove any connection between Samsung's marketing activity against HTC in Taiwan and comments against other manufacturers posted outside of that country. However, Samsung's admission of complicity within this case sure makes it extraordinarily easy to think it possible it has been paying people to engage in online attacks against all its competitors.

That's not to say all critics are paid, they are not. I’m not prepared to use Samsung's actions as an attempt to deny people their right to opinion -- Apple isn't for everyone and there's inevitably going to be people who feel sufficiently strongly about the company and its products that they want to criticize. That's good feedback for Apple.

However, I do hope that many Apple critics and Apple fans might agree with me that, in lowering itself to pay people to mount anonymous online attacks against at least one competitor, Samsung has shown a degree of unpalatable cynicism and ruthlessness.

Shame on you

All its competitors could now assume the firm will stop at nothing to achieve the market share it craves, while reducing the principles of "innovation" to being nothing more than the same device being made available in a dizzying array of display sizes.

If Samsung were an actual human child and I were its teacher, I'd wag my fingers, stare hard and say: "Samsung, you've let me down, you've let everyone on the Internet down, you've let the principles of fair competition down. I'm very disappointed and a little bit cross." And I'd send the scolded child home to bed without dinner.

Back here in the real world, if I were a Samsung competitor: Apple, RIM, Microsoft, HTC, Sony, or anybody else, I'd now be making contact with Taiwan's Fair Trade Commission to ask that the investigation should explore just how far this online campaign extended, asking such questions as:

  • Was it global?
  • Was it just against HTC, or did the company mount a similar dirty tricks campaign against other competitors?
  • How extensive and how long-lived was this campaign or campaigns?
  • Where did the criticisms come from? Were they generated by people involved in Samsung's own marketing teams and then passed to commenters for distribution online?
  • Just how implicated were Samsung's senior management in the case?
  • Where did the money come from?
  • Who handled the budget?
  • Who signed the cheques?

These questions are all very relevant to any firm engaged in competition against the company. Meanwhile, for consumers, the conclusion has to be that those user-submitted reviews for Samsung's products must now be seen as unreliable in their authenticity.

I don't care how much Samsung praises itself for transparency, as in this under investigation case, such behavior is inexcusable, amoral and plain wrong. I believe anyone engaged in the consumer electronics industry should be watchful of what findings emerge. If other companies engage in such marketing activity, they are also in the wrong. Multiple wrongs never constitute something that's right.

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