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Studios’ Web ‘Plants’ Lead to an Ethical Thicket

Ever since Harry Knowles burst to prominence with Aintitcoolnews.com, the Internet has blossomed with hundreds of movie geek Web sites, each one crammed with its own oddball assortment of news, reviews and message boards devoted to “Star Wars,” Quentin Tarantino and other pressing matters. For movie fans, the sites represent authentic participatory democracy--everyone’s opinion or obsession carries equal weight.

But 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 https://www.apple.com/trailers and it got me really excited. Check it out and tell me what you think.”

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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.

Renner also got several suspicious postings promoting Paramount Pictures films, including “The Sum of All Fears” and “K-19: The Widowmaker.” On Aug. 13, he received a series of messages from aptreke and aresolic, both hyping the “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan” DVD and a promotion that offered a free subscription to a “Trek"-themed dial-up modem. To Renner, the postings sounded like ad copy, not genuine fan messages. In one message, aptreke wrote: “Now I have a 30-day free subscription to a Trek-themed dial-up. There’s all this content on my homepage now that is really unique.... Did anyone else get this too and try it?”

Renner discovered that the messages came from the same IP address, one registered to Paramount Pictures. Both Parry and Renner say they tried contacting the studios and e-mailed queries to the people sending the suspicious postings, but never received a response. They suspect other studios of planting messages as well, but most postings were disguised by the use of a separate Internet service provider.

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“This is dirty tricks, not legitimate marketing,” says Parry, who adds that his site gets anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 hits a week, depending on the time of year. “It’s also a slap in the face because the studios are using our site to hype movies without paying for advertising. After all, what’s the difference between paying people to pretend to be film fans Web sites across the country and paying them to pretend to be happy customers in a testimonial TV commercial?”

These questions bring up issues about studio marketing ethics and how they apply to the Wild West environment of the Internet.

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.”

Paramount publicity chief Nancy Kirkpatrick said her studio had no knowledge of any employees planting plugs for its films. “People who go online say they’re working for Paramount or an agency hired by Paramount. We don’t do anything without full disclosure.”

Other studios, which were not involved in these incidents, say their staffers or hired teams don’t hide their identities. “I won’t pretend that we’ve never put any seeding information into a Web site, but we never do it covertly,” says New Line interactive marketing chief Gordon Paddison, who engineered the studio’s groundbreaking Web campaigns for the “Lord of the Rings” film series. “No one here is allowed to pose as a fan. When I’m online, if someone asks who I am, I say, ‘I’m Gordon from New Line.’ ”

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Steve Peters, who runs argn.com, a site devoted to alternative reality gaming, says his message boards are frequently invaded by street team fans touting products. His site now has a discussion area devoted whether viral marketing is a “valid approach” or merely “insulting” lies.

“To see someone posting as someone they’re not really ticks people off,” Peters says. “I mean, if someone did that on TV, they’d get in trouble, wouldn’t they?”

In fact, the producers of the new TV show “Push, Nevada” were recently busted for hiring actors to pose as members of a supposedly real-life Push, Nev., high school hockey team on a segment of “Good Morning America.” Because “Good Morning America” is on ABC, the same network airing “Push, Nevada,” ABC was pilloried by skeptical TV columnists who found it hard to believe that the network or “Good Morning America” wasn’t in on the stunt.

It seems that entertainment conglomerates practice a double standard when it comes to the Internet.

They have repeatedly blasted the Web as a haven for lawless pirates who engage in unauthorized file-sharing of music and movies. In a recent speech, News Corp. President Peter Chernin called the Internet “a moral-free zone” whose future is threatened by rampant piracy.

Yet these same media giants have no qualms about using deceptive marketing to publicize their products. It is widely believed, for example, that studio staffers regularly go on Harry Knowles’ site to plant positive reviews of their films--or negative reviews of their competitors’ movies.

These plantings have become commonplace ever since the runaway success of “The Blair Witch Project,” which was based in part on a clever Internet viral marketing campaign.

But subsequent attempts to create Web buzz have been less fruitful, largely because the planted street-team messages are so clumsily executed. “You can spot these guys right away, because no real people write the way they do,” Parry says. “No real person ever says, ‘Hey, check out the trailer here,’ with a link to it.”

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The people who run movie Web sites worry that these planted messages are alienating rank and file fans, pointing to aintitcoolnews.com, which now seems to carry more weight with industry insiders than true fans. “I wish these studios realized how unprofessional it is to plant things,” Renner says. “If you read these dumb messages, you’d think, ‘Who was ever going to believe ‘K-19' was a good movie anyway?’ ”

“The Big Picture” runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes. com.


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