Does word of mouth mean anything when it's bought and paid for?

Wait till you see what's really behind some of the arts journalism you read.
Strange times and social media are corrupting the notion of word of mouth.

Earlier this week an unusual email arrived in my inbox offering cold, hard cash.

"After coming across Chicago Tribune," wrote the sender, Wil Matthews, offering not the most endearing or personal of salutations, although I suppose one can just come across us. "I feel," he wrote, "that this film is a perfect fit for your readership."

The film? "Believe Me," slated for a late September release and starring Nick Offerman (a credible name that gets attention, especially in Chicago, whence he came), Alex Russell, Christopher McDonald and rapper Lecrae. The lively trailer features the music of Jack White.

The pitch? Riot Studios, the Austin, Texas-based production company of "Believe Me," has developed a "proprietary marketing system" that involves recruiting people to write about the film while embedding a unique link to the movie's homepage. All you have to do is share that link though social media. For every reader who clicks on your unique link, 10 cents get deposited in an account that you can cash out any time. If that reader then buys merchandise, you get a 25 percent commission.

The actors (almost everyone in the movie except for Offerman) have provided a helpful ensemble video explaining the deal — and positioning it as the only way a small film can fight back against the massive manipulations of the major movie studios and their huge promotional budgets.

"Films like 'Believe Me' live and die by word of mouth," says the genial Lecrae.

"You see," says actor Max Adler, "a lot of these big studio films pay some company tons of money to pump their film up."

"But it's the fans who are driving the momentum," adds actor Zach Knighton, "so why shouldn't the fans reap the rewards?"

The guys then suggest that, hey, what's up, you are on social media all the time and, hey, what's up, who does not want to get paid?

So, fight the establishment all the way to the micropayment bank.

Wow. I read through all Riot Studios' materials several times just to make sure I had it all straight.

There were head-spinners. Therein, a producer, Alex Ross, notes that the online generation "suspects sponsored content." (Suspects it of what? Being sponsored?)

"So we're paying fans, even motivating them, to do what fans do: to tell their friends. What better way to hear about a new movie?" Ross writes.

Wow again. The reason, surely, that the "online generation" (whoever that might be) suspects sponsored content and prefers word of mouth is that the "online generation," for all its tech savvy, still actually ascribes to word of mouth some residual purity of motivation. In other words, when your best friend tells you to go and see a movie or to read a book, you intuit that they actually think you might really like this movie or this book, that they liked it themselves, and not that they are saying this to add another fiscal entry to their account.

What has, of course, changed is that whereas word-of-mouth once was exactly as the term describes — I stand next to you, you open your mouth and you give me words — it now has been amplified and commoditized through so-called social media.

Instead of that old one-on-one chatter in the corridor (I ain't gonna drag out that mythical water cooler), the word-of-mouth dispenser now can offer those suggestions to hundreds or even thousands of folks at once. The channels of social media through which one can do that (Facebook, TripAdvisor, et al.) are, of course, businesses that need to generate revenue. Those businesses have two choices there: charge their users, which they are reluctant to do, or come up with creative ways to monetize the passing along of word of mouth.

And in that quest, the Facebooks and the TripAdvisors have thus approached the subjects of the word of mouth. And have been welcomed, especially in the world of arts and entertainment, where the products have a very limited shelf life and where a boom-or-bust mentality prevails. In Hollywood, the slow, steady seller is not a concept easily understood. In arts and entertainment, producers of all stripes have been frustrated since before the advent of the talkies by their inability to control word of mouth, even though they long have ascribed almost mythical significance to those words. All of a sudden, it can be controlled. For a rather small price, considering. In the case of "Believe Me," 10 cents a click.

It may not be news to you that there are people out there willing to pay people to share things online, through word of mouth, without requiring them to disclose the payola. I was, as you might imagine, struck by the offer being made to a major news organization, as distinct from, say, folks sitting around in their pajamas.

Moreover, the email arrived minutes after I had read another email, from an arts writer I know in Vancouver, British Columbia, drawing my attention to her recent unmasking of various apparent improprieties in the world of arts journalism in that beautiful city. West Coast meshugas ensued after the unmasking of one pseudonymous critic: "Why does the Province's Theatre Critic Use a Fake Name?" was the headline on Shannon Rupp's piece on thetyee.ca, which was followed by the subheadline, "And more strange tales from today's blurry frontiers of arts coverage."

Blurry indeed. The issue in Vancouver turned out to involve a moonlighting editor and publisher trying to simultaneously maintain and enhance two separate reputations that he very much wanted kept separate. Rupp also figured out that another of the city's "arts columnists" was, in fact, a publicist. All very disquieting if you sit where I sit. All very dislocating.

So I called up Matthews, who'd sent me the pay-for-play email. He passed me to his supervisor, Ryan Fanning, the director of operations for Riot Studios. Fanning seemed like a very nice guy. I got the sense I was not the first aghast writer to call him that day, after Riot made the choice to send out its offer on a wider basis.

"I think our pitch did come off a bit strong," he said. "We're going to learn from that and dial it back. We're just a little indie house in Austin that wants people to join its marketing team. We were not trying to jeopardize anyone's integrity. We just wanted to kick up some dust and get people talking."

Well, Mr. Fanning, so you did. No dime required.

Of course you could argue that purity of intent long has been elusive and that it's naive to think that word of mouth was ever totally free of corruption. And when making observations like these, it's always worth noting that newspapers carry advertisements and have sponsors and the like. But there still are safeguards, distinctions and disclosures, and those parties don't dictate the nature or the amount of content. And here, anyway, we write under our actual name.

But the most troubling issue here isn't so much about the complicated future of arts journalism, as dear to my heart as that topic may be. It's about the pay-for-play erosion of personal trust, the co-opting of the personal recommendation — the constant cracking of the wall of trust that governs so many of our social interactions by which we've always shared our passions, our loves, the contents of our lives.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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