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Sony’s gush to judgment

Workers were faux fans in 'Patriot' ad

Having acknowledged only a week ago that it invented a critic to lavish praise on its films, Columbia Pictures has now invented its own fans.

In nationally televised spots for Columbia’s 2000 summer movie “The Patriot,” a montage of man-on-the-street interviews show average folks waxing enthusiastic about the Mel Gibson actioner. However, the ad neglected to point out that two of these “folks” were employees of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Both employees, Tamaya Petteway and Anthony Jefferson, still work in Col’s worldwide marketing department. Petteway is the exec assistant to Col’s exec VP of creative advertising, Dana Precious, who was in charge of marketing for the Revolutionary War pic. Jefferson works on the finance side.

Petteway looks into the camera and assures viewers the pic is a “perfect date movie!” as her ostensible date, Jefferson, silently looks on with a faint smile.

To be sure, the use of so-called “reaction spots” is reasonably common in Hollywood. In most cases, audiences representing a “friendly” demographic are assembled and a few individuals are lined up for a Q&A session. In some cases, actors are given lines to read and are paid a small fee.

However, movie marketing insiders at other studios say it’s highly unusual for a studio to use its own employees for these spots.

Columbia’s Precious disagreed. In a statement defending the “Patriot” ads, she said, “Using actors, real people or employees as spokespeople is not unique to the entertainment business, is not specific to Sony Pictures Entertainment and is not something that is practiced only by me.”

“That said, perhaps this is a time for all of us in the business of marketing to review the practices that have become an industry standard and to rethink and redraw some boundaries,” she added.

Indeed, at least one entertainment marketing exec who runs his own firm said the use of actors or studio employees for advertising testimonials has become “an industry-wide practice.”

Still, the revelations about the “Patriot” ads raise questions about where to draw the line between promotional hype and paid shills.

“Federal regulators, I fear, will want to take a look at this practice,” said one marketing chief.

Charges of false and misleading advertising fall under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission. Capitol Hill, which has been sensitive to Hollywood marketing recently, could look into the practice as well.

None of this comes as good news to Sony, which is just recovering from an incident involving a fictitious critic named David Manning.

Jeff Blake, longtime distribution chief at Columbia, a few months ago assumed oversight for the studio’s marketing activities, and is known as a straight shooter who opposes advertising practices of this sort. Indeed, the ads for “The Patriot” were shot well before Blake took control.

“This has never been a regular practice at Sony,” Blake said. “The new policies and procedures that we are putting in place will make it a concrete policy not to use this form of advertising in the future.”

The ads first aired during NBC’s talker “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and also ran on CBS.

‘Affirmative’ action?

The TV ads raise questions about Sony’s reasoning for including its employees’ testimonials in the ads, which in the movie business are known simply as “affirmatives.”

“The Patriot” was perceived to be a tougher sell to black audiences.

After the pic’s release, Spike Lee was so miffed at “The Patriot’s” portrayal of Mel Gibson’s farmhands as independent contractors that he fired off a fuming open letter to Hollywood protesting the “whitewashing of history,” asking, “Where are the slaves? Who’s picking the cotton?”

Of the 32 people seen in “The Patriot” spot ad montage, only three are black, and two of them are the Sony employees Petteway and Jefferson.

“Testimonials are usually used to sell a movie to a segment of people whom you’re having a hard time convincing to see the movie,” said Bob Israel, a founder of the entertainment marketing firm Aspect Ratio. “You drawn upon whomever will be effective, whether that’s actors or employees. It’s an industry-wide practice.”

Petteway declined to comment, and Jefferson was not reachable for comment for this story.

“We were never shown the TV spots that apparently aired while we were out of the country promoting ‘The Patriot,’ ” said Suzanne Fritz, a spokeswoman for the pic’s producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich.

She added, “If these allegations prove to be true, then we are extremely disappointed.”

Blurb reverb

This is the second problem to hit Col’s marketing division in as many weeks: On June 7, Blake formally reprimanded and suspended two ad execs for their roles in the creation of the phantom film critic Manning.

Matthew Cramer, a director of creative advertising for Columbia Pictures, dreamed up Manning’s name as a sly reference to an old college chum at USC, David Manning. Cramer was placed on unpaid leave for 30 days along with his boss, senior exec VP of marketing Josh Goldstine, after an internal investigation.

The fabricated quotes appeared in four movie ads, with Manning’s bogus copy billed as having appeared in the suburban Connecticut weekly, the Ridgefield Press.

Dubious testimonials are not limited to the movie industry, of course.

The book business was jolted in 1992 when an EP Dutton published thriller “Just Killing Time” received rave endorsements from the likes of John Le Carre and Joseph Wambaugh.

Having paid close to $1 million for the book, the publisher was shocked to hear that its blurbs were counterfeit.