Much like any other social media platform that attracts millions and billions of users, Reddit is chock-full of advertisements these days. From sponsored posts to native ads and even advertisements recently being added to the comment sections of threads, Reddit has slowly rolled out new forms of reaching potential customers for several years now.
While most of these are fairly obvious with their designated tags denoting them as ads, for a number of years now there’s a lesser-known problem plaguing Reddit that many might not even be aware of. This “underground” form of covert advertising consists of Redditors, whether fake accounts or corporate-backed users, posting on the site disguised as just another regular piece of content.
These types of untraditional ads can come in the form of videos, images, positive comments or even memes posted under the guise of just another average Redditor who appears, at a glance, to be no different than any other user on the site. Sometimes these are more obvious, such as a trailer for a movie or television show posted conveniently just mere days before a premiere. Other times it can be a cool product showcased in a seemingly innocuous way or a comment praising something with positive feedback from a new account with little to no activity.
Unlike direct marketing, such as an infomercial or Google ad, which can be easily identifiable, this form of advert is known as “brand marketing” or “shilling” in informal usage — and the practice is quickly becoming the go-to form for brands as more traditional methods of advertising fall out of fashion or simply don’t perform. So how do these work, and how can you tell the difference between a normal user sharing something they’re genuinely interested in vs. a corporate shill trying to dupe users?
The basic premise behind brand marketing is to simply generate awareness, brand recognition and familiarity with a product or service. By getting your attention even for the briefest of moments, brands can almost subliminally plant the seeds of a future purchase or general interest and trustworthiness through these kinds of posts. The idea is that the next time you’re shopping for something or looking for something to do, you’ll subconsciously recall a brand, product, service or piece of content that you’re already familiar with.
Say, for example, you’re browsing Reddit one day and someone posts a cool gaming headset on one of your favorite subs. The post has tons of engagement, upvotes, comments, awards, etc., and a sleek-looking photo showing off the product in a natural home environment. You open it up and find a few of the top comments praising various aspects of the headset or even the brand itself. Now maybe you happen to be in the market for such a headset, so based on the positive reception of the post and supporting comments from a few fellow Redditors, you head off to your favorite store and pick one up. Perhaps you’re not currently looking for one, but a few months later when your headset breaks, you subconsciously remember that post and brand after browsing tons of no-name alternatives and settle on the one you at least recognize the name of.
This is exactly how such innocuous advertisements work, and they do work … even if you’re thinking right now “Nope! Not me. I’d never fall for something like that.” Billions of dollars are spent each year on similar ads for more traditional mediums, such as an ad you see on TV featuring a renowned actor mumbling incomprehensible phrases while driving a car, and corporations have even been caught on Reddit doing exactly this.
The subreddit /r/HailCorporate is dedicated to documenting such instances on Reddit, and while sometimes their fellow Redditors may be unwittingly advertising things through their posts, other times they’ve uncovered more manipulative examples that are hard to argue against. Dating back to 2009, the sub is one of the older communities on the site with more than 2.6 million members. Over the years, they’ve posted numerous examples of this underground advertising, so let’s take a look at some of the highlights.
Back in 2014, one of the posts on the subreddit documented an interesting occurrence shortly after Facebook announced that it had acquired the virtual reality company Oculus. What Redditor ShillsAreLosers observed was that an account by the name of Lellux made several comments to /r/gaming defending Facebook’s acquisition while praising the move as ultimately positive for Oculus, despite many at the time expressing worries over how the deal might change the brand. ShillsAreLosers then screenshotted three separate users (lakerswiz, threeseed and Quork) making identical comments to Lellux’s on a different thread in /r/technology also discussing the acquisition.
Now you could argue that these might be merely copied and pasted by one of the users or perhaps just an overzealous fan acting on their own, but ShillsAreLosers suggested that it also could be the original poster forgetting to switch accounts the first time. Interestingly, ShillsAreLosers also commented that they were shadowbanned from both subs after calling out the user and their comments deleted shortly after.
In 2017, another post on /r/HailCorporate by Redditor Fletch71011 pointed out that just two hours before the trailer for Deadpool 2 officially released, a post on the /r/todayilearned subreddit about Ryan Reynolds’ initial decision to play the role of Deadpool hit the top of /r/all. Other users in the comments also noted that there was a suspicious amount of Deadpool content on the front page of Reddit that day from other posts. Whether this was merely a coincidence or some targeted push to promote the upcoming sequel is impossible to say for sure, but it’s certainly curious.
Other times /r/HailCorporate has even suggested that entire subreddits might’ve been created with the intent to promote products to Redditors under the guise of regular posts from other users. In 2017, a since-deleted Redditor made a massive post about the /r/INEEEEDIT subreddit, which describes itself as “Home to the coolest products on the internet.”
In the post, the Redditor suggested that he and many others have speculated there’s some “nefarious marketing scheme” behind /r/INEEEEDIT. One of their main points is that the sub is used to push Amazon affiliate links, which would compensate a user for posting a product link that someone clicks through to make a purchase. They also stated that the moderator of the sub, H720, could be affiliated with the website ThisIsWhyImBroke since many posts link back to it. Additionally, as the moderator of /r/INEEEEDIT, the post stated that H720 can remove other Redditor’s products and links and help his own reach the top.
There are undoubtedly many, many more examples of this on /r/HailCorporate and other subs similar to it, but they’re not the only ones taking note of these strategies used by brands and corporations to promote or advertise their products on Reddit. In 2018, UK-based media company Point released a two-part investigation into Reddit’s bot and shilling problem under the title “Reddit For Sale.”
In the videos, Point showed how with just $200, a company could essentially buy their way into a top spot on Reddit through the use of fake accounts on the platform. In part one, originally released in 2016, the group purchased fake accounts and created a fake news story about Brexit, managing to not only dupe users into aligning themselves with their viewpoint, but also propelling the article to the top of a main sub with a surprisingly low amount of effort.
In the follow-up investigation, part two showed Point posing as a fake brand attempting to manipulate posts and comments on Reddit to positively change the conversation to help promote them. The PR agency they worked with told them it hires Redditors with aged accounts and with good standing to throw off any potential exposure into this questionable practice, as well as 1,500 active accounts on message boards and 10 social media “personas” they use. Their experience builds on the first and suggests that this problem of fake comments and fake votes is not only easy to do, but also widespread.
While this problem of shilling on Reddit is fairly well-known among users and also routinely called out or exposed when obvious, they seem to be continuously improving their methods to better hide these advertising practices, making them increasingly hard to identify. This also isn’t something exclusive to Reddit, as brand marketing posed as organic user-generated content is a big business and will only continue to grow as traditional forms of advertising lose their effectiveness.
If you want to at least attempt to defend yourself from such underground ads online, the best way to do so is to simply approach content skeptically. Don’t trust that a post or comment stems from just another regular user such as yourself. You could always look into the original poster’s history to see if they’re obviously a shill, but sometimes it isn’t easy to tell. Be cautious, use your brain, don’t believe everything you see or read online, and remember that awareness of this is key to safeguarding yourself.