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The Big Picture

Studios' Web 'Plants' Lead to an Ethical Thicket

October 01, 2002|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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 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.

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.

"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.

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