Fortune – There’s a somewhat paranoid theory being circulated among Apple (AAPL) investors in the wake of the company’s seven-month, $296-billion loss in market value.
It goes something like this:
Revealed as a patent copycat last summer by a California jury’s $1.05 billion verdict — a PR disaster of the first order that shook top management and tarnished the image of an entire nation — Samsung quietly declared war on Apple.
Drawing on a massive $5.3 billion sales, promotion and marketing budget, the company poured a fortune into a high-profile ad campaign designed to caricature Apple’s customers as foolish sheep. Meanwhile at the retail level it paid mobile phone salespeople cash “spiffs” (bonuses) for every smartphone customer they could persuade to choose Samsung over Apple.
Behind the scenes, the company engaged in more surreptitious stratagems. It began paying students and other heavy users of social media to post anonymous messages talking up the virtues of Samsung’s products and spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about Apple and other competitors.
Most deviously of all, it took a massive short position in Apple in the U.S. securities markets, putting selling pressure on the stock and tarnishing Apple’s once-glowing reputation on Wall Street.
OK, so that last bit is admittedly a stretch and purely speculative. Apple’s shares were due to fall of their weight as the company entered several quarters of tighter margins and slower growth.
But the rest of this nightmare fantasy is pretty well-documented fact.
The shocked reaction of Chairman Lee Kun-hee to the California verdict last summer was widely reported in South Korean media. Samsung’s marketing budget comes directly from the company’s quarterly reports. The anti-Apple ads were aired on prime-time American television. Some of Samsung’s spiff rates are posted online. And just this week Samsung’s Taiwanese subsidiary admitted that it paid students to post negative comments about rival HTC in its home market. Reports have since surfaced in the U.K. and Sweden that it was engaging in similar practices in those countries.
To be fair, Samsung is a world-class electronics manufacturer and a fierce competitor whose smartphones have steadily improved and increased market share on their own merit.
But the company certainly has pockets deep enough to do real damage to a company it might choose to target by other means. What’s not clear is how low it’s been willing to go.