Anti-piracy message a tough sell even for pro marketers

Hollywood started the week wrapped up in the glamour of the Golden Globes. It ends it as if it’s been sucker punched.

After an online protest and blackout, the antipiracy legislation in Congress is still alive, but there’s doubt that what is left will be robust enough to fight online theft.

So how did an industry, full of masters of messaging, find itself so flat-footed when selling its own story?

Hollywood is used to tapping Twitter to stoke fervor for pics like “Twilight”; instead the social media realm turned into an anti-Hollywood frenzy where no amount of explaining could stop the perception that this was new vs. old, or the wizards of the web against the rich moguls of the media. Jon Stewart skewered the fact that on the day of the Web blackout it seemed as if the only ones speaking out were … rich media moguls. But even Rupert Murdoch knew that his rants on Twitter alone weren’t going to cut it, “Where are all the big film stars with many millions to lose?” he asked in frustration.

Therein lies the problem.

When it comes to changing perceptions of piracy, the industry can tap the visibility of its celebrities only with mixed blessings. They get the attention, but they also reinforce the idea that Hollywood is merely the Red Carpet club. So as they pressed for passage of the antipiracy bills, studios and guilds tried to play up the point that showbiz is an industry chock full of average Joes making middle-class wages. They public was given a reason to care, but it’s also not what gets attention.

And when the public started paying attention this week, it was to the protest, hooked via hashtag by the free speech threat that an unpopular Congress was about to inflict on the Internet.

The industry had a campaign focused on winning over D.C., but Silicon Valley roused a movement, stoked by the public dismay over the ways of Washington.

Showbiz was left to play defense, but the the 50,000 or so sites already had blacked out. MPAA chairman Chris Dodd went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” highly influential in the Beltway mindset, but unfortunately for him, he spent about half of his segment talking about the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.

One studio executive, frustrated after a day of defections on Capitol Hill, noted the problem in getting any kind of traction for the studio argument. “It’s boring. Everyone wants everything for free.”

Going in, showbiz seemed to have a winning argument: Stop the stealing. The Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, and studios and guilds were all championing the original legislation, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously last May at a time when few outside wonkish types and Internet libertarians were focused on the issue. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) almost immediately put a hold on the bill, but he was viewed as a lone wolf who just didn’t get it.

But opposition began to build through the summer, to the point where Google and other Internet firms were ready and waiting when the House introduced an even more complex piece of legislation at the end of October. The entertainment industry unleashed its own grassroots campaign, Creative America, but it seemed too late when stacked up against the protest building online, made all the easier when waged against a difficult-to-explain piece of legislation. What was particularly eye opening was when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), supported by showbiz and Silicon Valley, tweeted her opposition, and her points only seemed to be reinforced when she sent out a message in clarification.

Studio moguls are still stinging, directing their aim at what they believe was a Google-stoked misformation campaign and a White House that aided it.

Yet there’s already talk that if the industry is to stir a real movement of its own to protect content, it’ll take a lot more than PSAs and 30-second spots, with a much larger and lengthier effort of copyright think tanks, colorful spokespersons and campaigns to show that the biz is on the cutting edge. My six-year-old nephew likes “Star Wars’ and “Cars,” but he’s zealous about his iPad. “What do you like better, Safari or Firefox?” he asked me recently.

For now, as the biz pushes back at Google and other firms that have the aura of innovation, they can at least take some solace in some of the hype that tech has rightsized Hollywood. That’s because in the Beltway, what goes around comes around: Today it is piracy; tomorrow may very well be privacy.

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