Ministry of Controversy

Big brother is reading

Almost every time I have mentioned a company or product on this blog—like Hort Couture or video game makers iwin.com (to choose two wildly disparate examples)—the subject of my wrath, praise, or mild derision has never failed to find my post. Hort Couture left a very nice, good-humored comment, for example, and the makers of the video game Garden Defense quite understandably called me out for not have played it. (Hey! No Mac version!)

It’s not surprising. Many of us use Google alerts to follow mentions of our names or blogs on the web, and probably some companies have even more sophisticated digital monitoring strategies in place. But I have to admit I was surprised when I received a letter from Scotts Miracle-Gro just a few days after the May issue of Buffalo Spree, the city/regional magazine I edit, hit the streets. In it, an article by gardening author Sally Jean Cunningham on vegetable growing said, among many other things,

Plants don’t need Miracle Gro or other synthetic fertilizers to grow, and the synthetics set back your progress if the goal is rich, lively, organic soil. Trust compost.

The letter from Scotts was addressed to Sally and offered a basic defense of their organic line, concluding,

I would be happy to put you in touch with an expert in our organic research department, who would be able to discuss the science behind our organic products, or refer you to any of our lawn care scientists at ScottsMiracle-Gro as sources for future stories on organic or conventional lawn and garden care.

I wasn’t surprised by what they said, but was surprised to hear from them so quickly, because we don’t put all our content on line, and this article isn’t available on the website. [ADDENDUM: It now is, for your benefit.]

I don’t question the right of a company to defend their product—if they don’t care, who will—but it kind of creeps me out just a bit to see how closely these discussions are followed. Indeed, quite a number of companies follow members of the gardening community on Twitter, as I am sure many of you have noticed. What do you think about it? Welcome addition to the conversation or just a little too close for comfort?

Posted by on May 5, 2009 at 4:33 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
Comments are off for this post

26 responses to “Big brother is reading”

  1. zephyr says:

    From my perspective, “Big Blue’s” close attention to all of this indicates that you and the other Ranters are doing a very good job of getting the message out. They know the clout you all now have. I wouldn’t be creeped out by it…but it would instill in me a very deep realization of the responsibilities that come with that clout….but you all are handling it very well, in my estimation.

  2. Katie says:

    FREAKY! Especially because the NPK (crack?) addiction of gardeners is NOT good for the soil, which means it is not good for us.

    I feel like the synthetic fertilizer and chemical peddlers are the epitome of short sightedness: They might still be alive for the next 50 years or so while they promote complete destruction of the soil, and thus a plant’s ability to produce nutritious, healthy food, but their children and their childrens’ children will slowly waste away-fed by no nutrients other than NPK (crack?).

    The question is, will this overwhelming amount of nothing but NPK turn these mutant children into nothing but tall, leggy, weak boned giants reaching for the sun (which has been obscured by smog)?

    But in all seriousness, why do these people believe their own propaganda? It is almost as if they have relatives and cousins in a certain former US Presidential Administration. Surely there must be a gene for self-centeredness, lack of foresight and stubborn gain at all costs?

    Ok, that wasn’t very serious, or was it?

    The more I read and learn about BIG AG, the more I agree with Elizabeth that they are, truly, BIG BROTHER.

    That must explain why they aren’t concerned with the lives of their own children, or their real brothers (and sisters).

    Too close for comfort? I don’t know that I care, unless the legislative body here in the US starts outlawing organic farms and farmers markets, heirloom seeds and anything that doesn’t come from BIG BROTHER.

    Whew. I would say I got up on the wrong side of the bed, but I didn’t.

  3. susan harris says:

    And if the company in question is also highly litigious, writers/bloggers learn to watch what they say about them, or avoid mentioning them altogether. I know I do. So the tactic works coz we don’t have budgets for lawyers.

  4. “future stories on organic or conventional lawn and garden care.”

    There is the use of that word conventional again to describe modern petro-chemically based horticulture and agriculture practices when organic approaches have the real 10,0000 year history.

    My horrible thought for the day is if this is what business does with google alerts and other web based information tracking, just imagine what the government is up to.

    This type of instantaneous response is one of the benefits/results of our information age. Like most things, how you use a technology reflects more than the technology itself.

    Scotts Miracle-Gro’s ability to do aggressive PR says what about them or their products? Discuss amongst yourselves.

  5. Patti in NNY says:

    I can understand being creeped out by the attention you are getting. But I’m impressed, really, and very happy to hear that maybe you, and all of us who read this blog, have a little power to try to change things.

  6. David says:

    I believe the reason these companies are watching closely what bloggers and other gardening gurus are saying about their products is that you are messing with their bread and butter; big time.
    Imagine that suddenly there is an increased interest in gardening across the country. The makers of Miracle-Gro see a potential windfall but along with the growing interest, there is a growing number of people making us aware that the Emperor Has No Clothes. You see how you are messing up their profit line? Not that it was you goal to do so. Information wants to be free, and you give freely (Thanks!); Miracle-Gro wants to be $12.99 for a 2 cubic feet bag.
    **This is the last year I buy bagged soil. I began composting and I am hooked**
    As for our addiction to NPK and such, all I can say is that advertising works, plus, I got a lot of advice from old time gardeners who roto-till the garden every year, grow everything in rows and drown their gardens with fertilizer. And one last thing: Just about every source on raising plants from seed tells us to fertilize the seedling once the first set of true leaves appear, and since they never tell us to stop feeding, we simply continue to do so throughout the plant’s life. ( I did anyway).
    Big Kudos to Mel Bartholomew (square foot gardening) who got me to using only compost to feed my plants.

  7. David,

    I use fish fertilizer for my seedlings because they sit in a sterile potting mix for a couple of months. Afterward, the plants can get by with only compost. Thats how I generally do it.

    If the presidential campaign is going to be tech savvy, so certainly will be the marketeers. I think the creepy part is only how they suggest they could give you sources for future stories. No doubt the scientists will inform your story about the superstitious nature of the human mind.

  8. ChristyACB says:

    It is a tad creepy, but also a very big kudos to you and a nod to your audience!

  9. Karen Pluta says:

    I agree with zepyhr – the attention is good, after all, the consumer is king . . . Right?

    Power to the people, the little people.

    Karen in DE

  10. Hi,

    I like this post and thought I’d share a point of view from the other side. I handle the PR for Troy-Bilt and have chatted several times with Elizabeth as well as other gardening bloggers for a variety fo things, but mostly the opportunity to do product views – 100% transparent product reviews (we never tell anyone what to say or ask to review a post – totally defeats the purpose).

    But back to the post at hand. We monitor the conversation happening online, not only for Troy-Bilt, but for all our clients. Keep in mind this isn’t anything new – companies always want to hear what their customers say about their products and ultimately learn from this. What is new is where this conversation is taking place. With social media, it provides comapnies a direct line to their target. The days of shouting messages to consumers, messages you often ignore, are over. Rather, it’s about building individual relationships and truly listening and learning from what you have to say. There are a variety of tools that make this easy, like Google Alerts that Elizabeth mentioned – anyone has access to them. Yes, there are larger tools we sometimes pay for with more bells and whisltes, but really, anyone can access what’s being said in real-time in any given platform. It’s just smart business. For Troy-BIlt, we want to know what people say about us, good and bad – and not just from bloggers, but from everyone. It makes us a better company, can ultimately improve customer service and hopefully helps us get to know our customers better and forge longtime relationships.

    I realize it does have a brother-esque feeling to it, but it’s really not. I’d question the companies that don’t listen, that don’t learn from customer feedback and don’t take the time to build relationships.

    And while we may always be listening and learning, we don’t necessarily always jump in – only when someone needs help, had a question or if we can add value. But more than anything, listening is the easiest and most effective thing we can do to learn. And what company doesn’t need to always be learning?

    Thanks,
    Michelle

  11. John says:

    As a long time poster on GardenWeb I find it kinda fun when a business starts a thread or responds to a comment and gets called out immediately. It’s as if cyber space is sacred ground and big business has no influence there, the little people are in control. Personally I think it’s a great idea to have them included in the conversation but they often don’t get it and simply recite their product’s label’s fine print rather than contribute anything real.

    My crystal ball tells me that eventually big money will have a larger role to play in on-line information and they will in effect, ruin everything (something about history repeating itself?). Right now most blog readers are really looking for personal input, how do you really feel about such and such, and not so much about salespeak and hype. If you choose to post ideas you have to be willing to take the good responses with the bad. Trying to control the public’s viewpoint about a product will surely backfire, the little voices are in charge of the conversation.

  12. mb. says:

    I always find it interesting when the only experts a group refers to are on the payroll. But then again, there was a time when I was paid to be cynical. Now it’s just a hobby.

  13. Hap says:

    Something most people forget is the internet, vast and seemingly anonymous, is that all of it is public and permanent. There are servers that still have the first web site I ever put up, for a now dead non-profit that vanished eight years ago….

    With free, easy to use web tracking software I can track who comes to my website and blog to see who are our customers, what search terms they used and even where they are from. This is a great tool to make my sites easier to find, but is also sobering and makes me aware that I have a responsibility to be mindful of my customer’s privacy.

    It is interesting to see just how often that a small sustainable organic cactus nursery’s site and blog is visited from Marysville, Ohio, home of Scott’s. Sure someone might be fan, but it could also be that I have Ranted and commented about their products, their business practices and treatment of independent garden centers…. most recently I was even “net followed” from a pro-site forum after commenting on the growing use of “Fluff” in potting soil….

  14. Della says:

    Oh you are funny! You blog on the internet to reach a large group of people and then you feign surprise and shock when you reach a large group of people! LOL!

  15. Elizabeth says:

    Hmm. Though I do state this in the post, I should clarify that the Cunningham article was NOT online when Scotts noticed it. That was what surprised me.

    In fact, I just had our IT guy put it up, so you all could see it. It was a print magazine article, NOT a blog post.

  16. Gerg says:

    Hey miracle grow, I’m a professional gardener who dislikes your brand. But if you send me a free case of bone meal, I might change my mind… (you got to fight fire with fire)

  17. It’s not creepy that Scott’s keeps an eye and ear open to conversations about their brand. It is a smart business practice. If you subscribe to “google alert” for your company, you can get feedback soon after an article or blog post is posted.

    Our gardening world is still rather small online and it isn’t hard to miss a mention, positive or negative about your brand.
    Shirley

  18. Plantanista says:

    M*ns@ñ+0, ^^ir@c1e Gr0~, Rouñ&up…

    C’mon, folks, get with the code!

    If you don’t want your mentions of the above corporations and products tracked and immediately booked by the full time PR corps responsible for such things, (are we really surprised that they exist?), you need to go a bit underground.

    Web tracking tools are used by PR firms and offices to constantly monitor mentions of their products. I don’t consider it creepy in and of itself, and it doesn’t surprise me one iota. If you really want to try to stay under the radar, use other characters in the name to get around the tracking software. Pretty easy to do, until they figure out every permutation, and start tracking that, too.

    Otherwise, simply be prepared to defend your position, the more science the better; state the post as your own personal opinion; or just don’t care one way or ‘tother.

    Corporations will do as corporations will do.

  19. Katie says:

    Remember, the point she was making is that her article was NOT online. This blog is, but the original article was not.
    *YOU* get with the program.

  20. The big gardening companies are dinosaurs and they know it. Many are in bed with “big ag”, most are absolutely obsessed with defending the status quo, and almost all are paranoid. If that sounds pathological, so be it. Good products produced by good companies defend themselves.

  21. greg draiss says:

    What gets me abouts Scotts is the constant name changing on their product lines……………….

    I know people inside Scotts and can never get a straight answer as to why they fool with consumer loyalty so much.
    I remember when “Picture” from Scotts was all premium blugrass. Then they put rye in it and pi$$ed
    off the lawn jockeys……….

  22. Barbara says:

    SCOTTS is full of S – – T and chemicals. I have turned down clients who use their products!

    I actually took the (wasted) time to call their 800 # to ask about their ingredients. LOL – talk about doublespeak (w/someone halfway around the world) – it was a joke.

    In the old days, a “clipping service” would track where your product was mentioned – now all on line.

  23. Barbara says:

    Osmocote. The product that is “natural” from Scott???? OMG

  24. Plantanista says:

    Katie- didn’t mean to offend. My tongue was firmly nestled in my cheek, and sorry that wasn’t super obvious…

    However, the reality is that there these corporations are masters at managing spin, managing their brands, and they have enormous resources. That is one of the reasons why they have succeeded in their stranglehold on the gardening market for so long.

    The gardeners on this blog are wise to the lies. But there are multiples more who will believe it when they hear from Scott’s that Osmocote is natural.

    This is why they are “shuddering” at the Obama’s organic approach to their garden. That kind of PR is exactly what they do not need, because it is much harder for them to control.

    But believe me, they will not cease in their market strategies and are always ready to change tacks. Get ready for hidden “conventional” or “traditional” ferts mixed into mostly “natural” ingredients, sold as “natural” fert. They will not give up, and they are probably working on a brand that they think will appeal to readers of GR. They probably even have a name for us. Take a guess what it is.

  25. It is a l little creepy (and perhaps unethical?) that they were monitoring something not online. Online implies “public,” whereas the other does not.

    However, it is also nice to know that GR is seen by “the industry” as influential, which is probably why they were watching in the first place.

  26. When Scott’s bought up Smith and Hawken (a store I love), I knew it would a matter of time before they started making changes. Guess that didn’t work out. Glad to see that they recently removed their name from the Smith and Hawken website. Recently I read they want to sell SH, which they only bought in 2004. GOOD! GO AWAY SCOTTS.

  • Follow Garden Rant

    Follow Me on Pinterest RSS