“In raising awareness for our films, we do our best to push the boundaries of traditional marketing in order to creatively express our message to consumers. In this case, we got it wrong.”
Those words were taken from an email sent to the New York Times by film industry behemoth 20th Century Fox. It was an apology from the corporation for its part in creating a network of “fake news” sites that published false stories as a marketing campaign for one of its films.
“We have reviewed our internal approval process and made appropriate changes,” Dan Berger, 20th Century Fox spokesman Dan Berger told the Times, “to ensure that every part of a campaign is elevated to and vetted by management in order to avoid this type of mistake in the future.”
On Monday, Fox had attempted to downplay the move. In a joint statement with production partner Regency Enterprises, the corporation justified the campaign by pointing out that the movie in question, A Cure for Wellness, is all about falsehood:
A Cure for Wellness is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker. As part of this campaign, a ‘fake’ wellness site, healthandwellness.co, was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news.
Unfortunately for Fox, few bought the line the movie giant was selling.
“This absolutely crosses the line,” Bonnie Patten, executive director of consumer watchdog TruthInAdvertising.org, told the Times. “Using a fake news site to lure consumers into buying movie tickets is basically a form of deceptive marketing.”
The five fake news sites created all had legitimate-sounding names: the Houston Leader, the Salt Lake City Guardian, NY Morning Post, the Indianapolis Gazette, and the Sacramento Dispatch. The sites published false stories about issues such as vaccines that vaguely tied in with A Cure for Wellness — but the stories contained real facts and data.
Variety, speaking with movie marketing veterans on the condition of anonymity, covered the story on Tuesday. Calling the campaign “monumentally stupid,” one expert went on to question Fox’s ethics.
On a moral level, I give it an F,” he said. “On an execution level, I give it an F. We don’t need more fake news stories. We don’t need more lies right now. There is already plenty of that out on the web. It’s already hard enough for people.
Another expert was similarly unimpressed with the thinking behind the campaign and pointed out that it was rooted in an issue that is, at this moment, fatiguing society:
We now live in a time where things are really turbulent and movies really are about an escape and that to me is the false, difficult note here. You are trying to relate your movie to a current event — which I get — but it’s a current event that most people are trying to turn away from.
And therein lies the hypocrisy.
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20th Century Fox only apologized because it got caught. Had it not, the corporation surely would’ve moved on to the next project, perhaps even utilizing this same marketing method on other films.
Perhaps, that is, had the strategy not failed — and backfired — so profoundly.
Fox was eager and willing to co-opt the fake news hysteria so long as it brought in the money. And had the film been a success — it tanked, and the reviews weren’t much better than the box office numbers — Fox would’ve sat back silently as the corporate media continues to beat real journalists down with the fake news hammer.
But the blatant hypocrisy on display isn’t even the biggest issue.
The bigger problem, as was highlighted by the New York Times in a follow-up piece on Thursday, is that the public simply isn’t informed enough to tell the difference between truth and falsehood.
“It’s a very kind of perverse use of a genre that is really counterproductive,” said Richard Edelman, owner of a public relations company. “I don’t think fake news is funny in the least. If people want to have stunts, fine, but one of the great dangers it seems to me at the moment is people can’t differentiate between that which is real and that which is a fake story.”
In such an environment, where the people can’t tell north from south or east from west, a person might view 20th Century Fox’s marketing ploy as an attempt to prey on the public. One such person is Susan Credle, chief creative officer at the advertising agency FCB:
Fake news is not a cute or silly subject. When you start to tear down media and question what’s real and what’s not real, our democracy is threatened. I think this is a hot enough subject that most marketers would understand that taking advantage of a vulnerable public is dangerous.
Essentially, what’s she said is that on the whole, society is still too informationally ignorant to discern reality. And that ignorance, as Credle stated, has left us vulnerable to big hungry predators like 20th Century Fox.
Whether this societal obliviousness has come about due to an individual’s willingness to ignore hard truths or simply because he or she doesn’t have the wherewithal for discernment is, at the current stage, irrelevant. The fact remains that the American populace, as this story about Fox clearly proves, has yet to reach a level of awareness in which it can fend for itself in the Digital Age.
And this is precisely what independent, alternative news outlets such as Anti-Media and others are trying to correct — ignorance. The problem, of course, is that ignorance of the truth is what the corporate media is all about.
Indeed, at its core, this is why the “fake news” weapon was invented — to wrap true alternative news stories up in so much false garbage that people would stop trusting legitimate independent media sources.
The fight continues, and the New York Times — the epitome of corporate media in print — was certain to name the enemy on Thursday in the closing of its article. The last quote is from Rob Schwartz, chief executive of TBA\Chiat\Day New York, who says “between the manufacturing of fake news and the alternative news, I’m tired of it.”
Believe this, Rob: alternative media is tired of it, too.