When fake news and marketing don't mix: 20th Century Fox apologizes for movie's ad campaign

The backlash to a movie ad campaign by 20th Century Fox offers an important lesson in modern marketing: advertising and fake news don't mix in today's media environment.

It may have worked in Blair Witch era, but experts say today’s media environment isn’t right for hoax sites

A Cure for Wellness, which opened on Friday, focuses on a mysterious wellness spa in the Swiss Alps. (The Associated Press/20th Century Fox)

Experts say the backlash to an ad campaign by film studio 20th Century Fox offers an important lesson in modern marketing: advertising and fake news don't mix in today's media environment.

A marketing campaign for A Cure For Wellness, director Gore Verbinski's new thriller about a mysterious Swiss health spa, created a small constellation of fake local news websites with headlines like "Psychological thriller screening leaves Texas man in catatonic state."

Other fake headlines had only tenuous thematic connections to the film, such as "Trump orders CDC to remove all vaccination-related information from website," or "BOMBSHELL: Trump and Putin spotted at Swiss resort prior to election."

An archived version of the website for The Sacramento Dispatch — which is not a real news media outlet — shows fake news headlines meant to promote the 20th Century Fox film. (Archive.org)

According to a report from Buzzfeed News, various stories from the fake news websites were shared across social media by readers who may not have known they were hoaxes. The websites were taken down following Buzzfeed's report, and now redirect visitors to the official website for A Cure for Wellness.

20th Century Fox issued an apology for the campaign after the story was picked up by other major media outlets.

Branding problem for Fox Entertainment

​On top of the ethical issue of deceiving people with fake news, 20th Century Fox may have really upset the people who were misled, according to Peter Darke, a marketing professor who studies consumer trust at York University's Schulich School of Business.

"We know that consumers who are manipulated in this way respond negatively when they realize that the whole purpose of this tactic was simply to grab their attention," said Darke.

Because of the current journalistic climate that we're in, there's just no appetite for this whatsoever.- Vincent  Georgie , professor of film marketing

That breach of trust is especially egregious, said Darke, because the parent company of 20th Century Fox, Fox Entertainment Group, also owns Fox News.

"Consumers can easily make the link between a Fox movie and Fox News," he said.

Ken Wong, with the Smith School of Business at Queen's University, is less certain that moviegoers will make that connection. Still, he said the ad campaign was a bad idea.

"I think it is typical of marketing in its most amateur form, where the only attempt at appreciation is to try and be cute or to garner attention without any due regard for the longer-term consequences of how you're garnering that attention," Wong said.

Bad timing

20th Century Fox deserves some credit for its creative campaign, said Vincent Georgie, who studies film marketing as an assistant professor at the University of Windsor. But the studio went too far by failing to explicitly signal to readers that the fake news websites were part of a promotional campaign.

"Conceptually, it's kind of interesting," said Georgie. "But it was executed in a way that you don't know it's a joke. And that's the problem with it. If the audience is not in on the joke at all, it's not perceived as a joke — it's actually perceived very negatively and very seriously.

"Because of the current journalistic climate that we're in, there's just no appetite for this whatsoever."

The Salt Lake City Guardian, another fake site set up to promote A Cure for Wellness, included phoney local news headlines. (Archive.org)

Fake news has become a thorny political issue in the wake of the recent U.S. presidential campaign, when a number of false reports made their way around social media. Some have argued that Facebook helped Donald Trump win the presidency. On top of that, the U.S. president regularly refers to certain reports about his administration as "fake news."

Haunted by The Blair Witch Project

Georgie sees a parallel between 20th Century Fox's marketing strategy and another famous ad campaign in film history: online marketing for The Blair Witch Project helped the 1999 horror blockbuster earn hundreds of millions of dollars despite its shoestring budget.

The hugely successful campaign for that film included a website featuring fake TV news pieces and police evidence that lent credence to Blair Witch's fictional story, about a group of young documentary filmmakers who disappear in the woods while investigating a local paranormal legend.

In the nascent days of the internet, the strategy gained incredible amounts of attention — and is credited with turning entertainment marketing on its head.

The Blair Witch Project shocked Hollywood in 1999, becoming a smash hit in part due to an online marketing campaign that used tactics that might now be called 'fake news.' (The Associated Press/Artisan Entertainment)

That kind of campaign would "actually create total uproar" in today's social media environment, Georgie said.

"Because we didn't have social media back then, and internet was certainly at its infancy stages, our relationship to these types of stories was just completely different."

It remains to be seen whether A Cure for Wellness, which opened on Friday, will benefit or suffer from the controversy.

"Controversy is one of the greatest ways that you can sell a film," said Gary Faber, co-founder of market research and strategy firm ERm, which studies audiences.

"But usually you want your movie to be the controversy — you don't want your marketing to be the controversy."

About the Author

Solomon Israel

Solomon Israel is a producer and writer for CBC News, based in Toronto. He's been on the business news beat since 2011, with stints covering technology, world, and local news. More recently, Solomon has been covering issues related to marijuana legalization. He can be reached at solomon.israel@cbc.ca, or on Twitter: @sol_israel.


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