Stories about President Donald Trump secretly meeting with Vladimir Putin, or banning vaccinations, or refusing to send aid to a California disaster area were bound to draw a lot of readers and attention.
Readers of those stories in recent days have raised at least a couple of problems with them: 1) They’re not true. 2) They’re an ethically-challenged way to promote a Hollywood movie.
The fake news promotion of “A Cure for Wellness” — which became widely known on Monday — has created a small furor on social media and in conversations among film promotion experts. The aficionados mostly lambasted 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises for misleading consumers, in an attempt to boost ticket sales for the psychological thriller, which opens this weekend. Other marketing authorities said the sub-rosa campaign for the film succeeded because it drew lots of conversation in the days before its launch.
The two film companies acknowledged Monday that they hired a fake news creator to build websites and stories on a variety of subjects. Many were tied to Trump. Others were politically charged: citing a purported Utah bill to jail and publicly shame women who received abortions and referring to a “groundbreaking study” on the mental health challenges of liberals. The made-up stories had only oblique references to director Gore Verbinski’s film.
Only after the fake news promotion had been written about by multiple news outlets, did the content on the fake news sites change. Then, only headlines for the fake stories appeared. Clicking on the headlines led readers to a website for “A Cure for Wellness.”
The film is a dark tale about a high-powered young executive who goes to Switzerland to recover his company’s CEO from a health spa, only to be caught up in a mysterious treatment regimen that is far from benign.
A Fox spokesman said the studio would not discuss who came up with the publicity stunt, or any other details of the promotion. Regency, the production company founded by business magnate Arnon Milchan, also did not respond to requests for more information.
One veteran movie marketing official, who doesn’t work for a rival studio, called the planting of fake news to sell a movie “monumentally stupid.”
“On moral level, I give it an F. On an execution level, I give it an F,” said the expert, who declined to be identified, out of fear of losing future business opportunities. “We don’t need more fake news stories. We don’t need more lies right now. There is already plenty of that out on the web. It’s already hard enough for people.”
In a joint statement Monday, Fox and Regency suggested that the theme of fake news tied into the movie’s exploration of a fake cure.
“‘A Cure for Wellness’ is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker,” the statement said. “As part of this campaign, a ‘fake’ wellness site healthandwellness.co was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news. As our movie’s antagonist says, ‘There is a sickness inside us. And only when we know what ails us, can we hope to find the cure.'”
But the movie marketing critic said that tie-in was far from obvious to the vast majority of those reading the fake news stories, which were republished or mentioned thousands of times on social media in recent days. “Those stories did not tie in — in any positive way — back to the movie,” said the critic.
Another marketing executive questioned why Fox and Regency would want to come anywhere close to the volatile issue of concocted news stories, a subject that is stirring anger and anxiety across the political spectrum since last year’s presidential election.
“We now live in a time where things are really turbulent and movies really are about an escape and that to me is the false, difficult note here,” said the marketing executive, who also asked not to be named. “You are trying to relate your movie to a current event — which I get — but it’s a current event that most people are trying to turn away from.”
Social media users generally gave the marketing subterfuge negative marks, too. “Tone deaf,” said one person on Twitter, where another added: “Sets a frightening precedent for Hollywood to manipulate.” A third said: “Boycott #CureForWellness for highly irresponsible creation of fake news in today’s environment. Wait until it’s free or bootlegged.”
Russell Schwartz, who teaches film marketing at Chapman College, was less critical of the “Cure” campaign, saying it appeared to have the desired effect of drawing attention to the film just before Friday’s opening. But he, too, questioned the value of hitching the movie to such a volatile subject. “The fact they tied into so many sensitive issues right now, I think that might have been too great of a reach for them,” said Schwartz, who is also co-principal of Pandemic Marketing Group.
Another marketing veteran, who works for a Hollywood production company, said all the chatter about the “A Cure for Wellness” campaign made it a success, .
“If you can drum up this much attention in the week a movie is being released, I don’t think that is a bad thing,” said the executive. “You want as much awareness and buzz as you can get.”
The booster did question the extent of the fake stories’ attempts to hide their connection to “A Cure for Wellness.” “They were fooling people as long as possible, but people have to know this is about a movie,” said the executive. “When you are going to open in a few days, you have to sell some tickets.”