What is Shilling?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Shilling is an often illegal practice used in many different fields to engage the interest of a crowd. A shill is a person who has associations with a person offering an idea, or a product, and the practice dates back into antiquity. Usually the shill looks like an average person in the crowd, but his or her enthusiasm for the product, or the speech of a politician, plays on crowd psychology to elicit positive response from others.

Shilling in casinos in order to encourage onlookers is illegal.
Shilling in casinos in order to encourage onlookers is illegal.

Shilling is also used in shows that have audiences. Magicians employ shills and used shilling to perform seemingly “magic” tricks, such as guessing the number in someone’s head or the contents of their pockets. Today television shows that have audiences may employ shills to laugh or applaud at particular comments. Infomercials can be taped with numerous shills, people who look like an average audience but are in fact actors paid to seem enthused about a product.

The shill is only effective if they are able to blend into the crowd.
The shill is only effective if they are able to blend into the crowd.

Traveling salesmen, particularly those who sold products that had little value, generally employed shills. They could either “cure” someone of something, or have a shill in the audience who would make comments that would encourage others to buy a product. Unscrupulous traveling ministers might also use shilling, and politicians did, and still do.

Some politicians have been accused of planting certain questions at campaign speeches that would make them look best. Although there may be some public outcry when a politician is caught utilizing shilling to their advantage, other politicians may not be quick to condemn them since many use a similar practice, and it is a relatively time honored tradition.

Another example of shilling occurs in casinos, and it is generally illegal. Players who look like average folks are employed to look like they’re winning a great deal of money. This encourages any onlookers to think that gambling may win them money too, though in general, most people lose more than they win. A legal variant of shilling is to employ people to play poker with house money to keep games going that would otherwise not have enough players.

Critics and journalists may be accused of being shills if they have proven connections to anything they might favorably review. Anyone who favorably reviews something, which is likely to earn him or her a profit, either directly from the company receiving the review, or in some other manner may be called a shill. When a journalist or reviewer does have a conflict of interest or a direct interest in a topic, he or she is supposed to disclose that information.

A great deal of Internet shilling is carried on, especially when it comes to the sales of products. People may be paid to write favorable reviews of products in order to engage others to buy them. Even professional endorsements of products, where people are paid to give an endorsement, are akin to shilling.

Magicians employ shills and used shilling to perform seemingly “magic” tricks.
Magicians employ shills and used shilling to perform seemingly “magic” tricks.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I've been battling to log in with a social media site or to create an account, so...

Con-artists I can understand, but genuine enthusiasm for a product or a purpose?

I came across this term when trying to re-post a link from one web domain to another and saw it is "banned for shilling". I'm absolutely astounded that a distinction can even be drawn between enthusiasm and sharing, and an out and out con! Thanks for the information.


a shill is the description you gave above

a shilling is an English coin used before they changed to the decimal system

There were 20 shillings to 1 pound English currency

Or 21 shillings to a guinea - also still English currency

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