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March 4th, 2017

Are you upset by fake news that deceives consumers and occasionally puts people at physical risk?  If only the bad actors were not online phantoms but established companies, entities with a well-known public face, that you could launch a product boycott against and hurt them in their pocketbooks.  Now, you have the chance.

20th Century Fox, the maker of A Cure for Wellness, a horror/mystery film, launched phony news media websites and distributed outlandish fake news stories, involving President Trump, Russian President Putin, and Lady Gaga, as part of its marketing strategy to promote the film.

The ruse collapsed once online consumers and fact-checking organizations figured out that the so-called media outlets were fake.  A firestorm of social media and news media criticism began a week before the film was scheduled to be released.  Neither 20th Century Fox or New Regency, the production company involved in the film, publicly apologized immediately after the truth came out and issued a defense of their actions to news media a few days before the release of the film:

“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.com was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news.  As our movie’s protagonist says, there is a sickness inside us.  And only we know what ails, can we hope to find a cure.”  (BuzzFeedNews, February 13, 2017)

20th Century Fox must have had second thoughts and issued a public apology the day before the film opened, saying:  “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.

The digital campaign was inappropriate on every level, given the trust we work to build every day with our consumers.  We have reviewed our internal approval process and made appropriate changes 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.  We sincerely apologize.” (Washington Post, February 17, 2017)

Willful Deception or Clueless Behavior?

20th Century Fox’s ethical lapses were bad, but the violation of trust with consumers was worse.  Did they knowingly attempt to deceive consumers to drive online traffic to promos for the film?  Did they plan to leave the fake news media sites in place and maintain the deception and apologize only if they got caught?  Or, was it just plain clueless behavior?

The film industry is a high-risk and competitive business.  But so are a lot of other industries.  Creative and edgy marketing strategies are often used to get the attention of consumers.  Topical issues of the day are frequently used to create unique and striking approaches to marketing products and services.

Fake news has been seated center stage in the public’s consciousness.  Finding out what role fake news played in in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign has been a top-of-mind interest of the mainstream media, the U.S. Congress and the general public.  These issues have become a part of America’s national dialogue.  It’s hard to imagine why 20th Century Fox would think that associating A Cure for Wellness with deceptions aimed at consumers would generate anything other than a thumbs down.

A Lesson Learned?  Or, A Step On A Slippery Slope?

We’ll probably never know the whole truth behind 20th Century Fox’s decision to partner with a professional fake news purveyor to promote A Cure for Wellness.  But the optics are not good for 20th Century Fox and nor are the implications for society.

While a grassroots boycott was not mounted against 20th Century Fox, a not so small measure of consumer displeasure with A Cure for Wellness is hitting the filmmaker where it hurts the most.  According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the opening weekend (February 17-19) ticket sales for the $40 million production were $5 million and dropped the next weekend (February 24-26) to $1.4 million.  Foreign sales of $9 million have helped the bottom line, but the falling trajectory of ticket sales this early suggests that 20th Century Fox and its investors will have unhappy memories of this film.  If that’s not enough pain, 20th Century Fox may also have legal problems.  The people highlighted in the fake news campaigns could file suit against Fox for using their likenesses without their permission on the phony websites.

Will the 20th Century Fox episode be a lesson to others that using fake news is a bad idea?  Let’s  hope so.  As I wrote in another blog post recently, an ethical lapse of this kind could either help us as a society to reject fake news or inch us closer to viewing it as part of a new reality where established facts are given equal weight with alternative facts.  Only time will tell.

Photo credit:  &copy; Gigraa | Dreamstime.com – <a href=”https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-press-conference-person-image25975866#res16200639″>Press conference with person</a>

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