The LA Times reports on movie studios hyping their own films on Internet movie sites:
- earlier this year, Chris Parry, a 32-year-old writer and ex-production manager who runs the site efilmcritic.com, began noticing a lot of very inauthentic postings. They read like outright publicity plugs, or what Net denizens call “plants,” most of them touting films released by Universal Pictures.
On May 30, filmfreak234 wrote: “Lemme just say that I really can’t wait to see undercover brother … am I alone here? For one it looks hella funny, and two its got denise richards. You just can’t get better than that combo!!!! Apparently harry knowles thinks so too. You know, from aintitcool.com. He said it was the bomb. If you wanna see what he wrote check out www.aintitcool.com and look for it on your own … I’m definitely stoked for this one.”
On July 9, fangoria17 wrote, enthusing about “The Silence of the Lambs”: “I can’t wait until the prequel Red Dragon comes out this fall. I watched the trailer for it at http://www.apple.com/trailers and it got me really excited. Check it out and tell me what you think.”
When Parry got a series of messages plugging “Blue Crush,” another Universal summer release, he became suspicious, because all the messages, as he put it, “were obviously scripted and always had a link to the trailer for the film.” When he checked the IP, or Internet Protocol, address of the messages, he discovered that they originated from the same place, Universal Pictures’ registered corporate site, MCA.com.
Parry’s movie site wasn’t the only one being “seeded” with fake fan messages. Brian Renner, a 17-year-old high school student who runs the site themovieinsider.com from his home in the Detroit suburbs, received identical postings for the films “Undercover Brother” and “Red Dragon.” When he ran a check on their IP addresses, they were the same as for the messages at Parry’s site: Universal Pictures.
….This isn’t the first time movie studios have been caught using questionable marketing practices. Last year, Newsweek revealed that Sony Pictures had invented a fake film critic named Dave Manning, whom the studio quoted in ads offering favorable blurbs. Shortly afterward, Sony admitted that two employees had posed as moviegoers in man-on-the-street testimonial TV ads to promote an earlier release.
At the time, rival studio marketers loudly decried Sony’s activities, saying they never used staffers or actors in TV testimonial ads (though questions about their veracity in other movie ads led the studios to stop using that type of advertising). But different rules seem to apply for the Internet. In recent years, the Web has been inundated by viral marketing, in which a variety of companies have used teenage “street teams” or their own employees to tout CDs, sci-fi DVDs, skateboards, sneakers, video games and teen apparel.
Universal Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger says his studio has regularly used street teams to go online and talk up Universal films. He insists they are not employees, but unpaid volunteers recruited by the Universal Music and Video Distribution Group.
“It’s aggressive marketing, but it is not deceptive marketing,” he says. “This is a technique used everywhere in corporate America–it’s no different from the girls who go into bars to tout cell phones and vodka. However inept these postings were, they were unpaid volunteers expressing their unscripted enthusiasm. They were not posing as fans; they were fans. We never knew the Web sites attempted to contact them. If anyone asked who they were, there’s no question that they should have identified themselves”