Well, it'd been a long time coming. We've been trying to call Universal Studios to task for ages for having employees litter our website with unpaid promotion for their films (they call it Viral Marketing, we call it freeloading and fraud), and after trying to get numerous mainstream press outlets interested in blowing the story open, it's finally happened. Today, the LA Times printed a piece by Patrick Goldstein outlining our dramas with Universal as well detailing those that other websites have had with the same folks. And finally, after months of goading, the studios have come out and given their side of the story. What follows is enough to make any thinking man laugh out loud until milk comes out of their nose, but it's what Universal claims is God's honest truth. You be the judge.
According to Goldstein's article, Universal Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger says his studio has regularly used 'street teams' to go online and talk up Universal films. He insists they are not employees, but unpaid volunteers recruited by the Universal Music and Video Distribution Group.
"It's aggressive marketing, but it is not deceptive marketing," he says. "This is a technique used everywhere in corporate America--it's no different from the girls who go into bars to tout cell phones and vodka. However inept these postings were, they were unpaid volunteers expressing their unscripted enthusiasm. They were not posing as fans; they were fans. We never knew the Web sites attempted to contact them. If anyone asked who they were, there's no question that they should have identified themselves."
Okay, let's have at Schmuger's claims here. First of all, he claims it's not deceptive marketing. Well, someone please explain to me how it's deceptive for Sony to features employees telling people how much they loved a movie in a TV commercial for that movie, but it's not deceptive for people 'recruited' by Universal to do the same? Paid or not, if you're asking people to go online to hype your product and those people don't make it clear that they're engaging in a corporate activity, it's deceptive.
Second of all, this is VERY different to people going to bars to tout cell phones and vodka. A woman wearing a Smirnoff cut-off t-shirt and sequined shorts offering me free vodkas is a long way from someone coming to our website and pretending to be a fan of a movie - while they're siting at a desk in Universal's corporate headquarters. One is open promotion, one is secret promotion.
Next, does anyone really believe that Universal has teams of unpaid fans that they bring in to hype a movie online - for no pay? How can these people be 'fans' of the movie they're hyping when it isn't out yet? And why, if they are fans, do they only promote the trailer, not the movie itself? I'll tell you why, because promoting a free trailer through deceptive means won't get you arrested, but promoting a movie that way will. Of course, the trailer promotes the film, but that's one extra step that keeps Universal out of the courts.
Schmuger also claims that Universal has no idea we tried to contact these people. Well, we tried to contact Universal too, but they weren't exactly interested in hearing from us. Contact me any time, Senor Schmuger - firstname.lastname@example.org - we'll do lunch.
Lastly, Schmuger claims that his 'volunteer fan' brigade should have identified themselves when we asked them to. That might have been hard, as they always used fake names and fake email addresses. But hey, they're legit, right Marc? These are honest hard working film fans who just seem to be on the Universal lot when they have a sudden pang to promote your films, without payment, from your computers, using fake email addresses and fake names.
And if you believe that, Schmuger has an Undercover Brother 2 sequel for you to invest in.
But the real kicker to all this? We know exactly how much of a lie this 'volunteer' story is. We here at Hollywood Bitchslap have received a first-hand account of a staff meeting held by Marc Schmuger just last week where Universal staff where 'reminded' of the 'volunteer' defence in no uncertain terms. In order to protect our sources, we're not going to go into a lot of detail, but we challenge Marc Schmuger to come forward with names of his volunteer forces so that his defence can be verified. Furthermore, we'd like to see gate lists of the days when these volunteers were on the Universal lot, being allowed to use Universal computers and office space to engage in their 'unpaid voluntary support' of Universal films.
In short, we're going to say it in black and white. Marc Schmuger is lying. Universal does indeed use paid employees to pretend to be fans of their films on movie-related websites across the country. Prove us wrong and we'll apologize profusely, Marc, but we know (and you know) that we're one hundred percent on the money and should push come to shove, we can prove our case.
Back to Goldstein's article, Paramount publicity chief Nancy Kirkpatrick said her studio had no knowledge of any employees planting plugs for its films. "People who go online say they're working for Paramount or an agency hired by Paramount. We don't do anything without full disclosure."
Okay, first of all, who from Paramount 'goes online'? Would this be the teams of temps who are told to go into chatrooms and promote Paramount's latest film? Oh yes, we've got first hand knowledge of this practice as well from people who've worked with Paramount. We also have knowledge of this going on at New Line and Fox and a series of other venues. But hey, I'm sure these people clearly identify themselves as having come from a stduio before they post, right?
Wrong. In fact, despite having been online since 1997 and boasting a line-up of over 200 writers, most of which spend a lot of time at a variety of different film-related websites doing research or just 'fanning about', we're not aware of a single person from this site ever having seen a studio employee actually admit that they're from the studio when pushing a film online. Not one. Never ever. Apparently everyone does it, but nobody has ever seen it happen.
So who is this mysterious person using Paramount's computers to hype their films without their knowledge? Is it another unpaid volunteer fan that just happened to walk by an open internet connection while on the studio tour? And why do these fans feel the need to promote a trailer? And in so many different places, and using the same scripted message every time? And how do they spend literally hours doing this on Paramount's lot without ever being found out? Is there a Phantom of Paramount, sitting in the rafters sending out mysterious emails at night when the yuppie executives have all gone out to the oxygen bar?
Continuing with the Times piece, other studios, which were not involved in these incidents, say their staffers or hired teams don't hide their identities. "I won't pretend that we've never put any seeding information into a Web site, but we never do it covertly," says New Line interactive marketing chief Gordon Paddison, who engineered the studio's groundbreaking Web campaigns for the "Lord of the Rings" film series. "No one here is allowed to pose as a fan. When I'm online, if someone asks who I am, I say, 'I'm Gordon from New Line.' "
That'd be something new, if these people said "I'm Gordon from New Line and I want you to go see Lord of the Rings." The reality is that they don't. In fact, the ARGN.com site received a post during the Lord of the Rings campaign that claimed that if you looked really closely in a scene you could see Gollum in the background, prompting hundreds of people who had already paid to see the movie to go see it again just to catch the secret scene. Unfortunately for them, the scene didn't exist. But hey, I'm sure if they'd have asked, Gordon from New Line would have told them who he was.
Let's face it, the studios have been sprung here. We've nailed you. Despite your multi-million dollar promotion budgets, despite our requests for you to work with us so we can all benefit rather than against us, we've found you out.
Or, in Goldstein's words, "They have repeatedly blasted the Web as a haven for lawless pirates who engage in unauthorized file-sharing of music and movies... Yet these same media giants have no qualms about using deceptive marketing to publicize their products. It is widely believed, for example, that studio staffers regularly go on Harry Knowles' site to plant positive reviews of their films--or negative reviews of their competitors' movies."
So why are we doing this? As I personally told Goldstein, nobody at this site is looking to bring down the studios. We're not bad boys seeking to kick dirt in the face of the hands that feeds us, only nobody is actually feeding us. Of the hundreds of writers who have posted reviews here, only a handful have any sort of pre-release press access to movies - and that's usually brought about by them writing elsewhere. In fact, one of our writers, a regular on the Chicago radio scene, still has problems getting to press screenings of films, even though he's heard on several radio stations, read in several newspapers, and appears here.
So what is Viral Marketing? According to Business 2.0 (http://www.business2.com), to promote the Nutty Professor 2, Universal hired Electric Artists, a company that specializes in viral marketing. "We handle the community-based marketing to complement and supplement website development," the company's founder and CEO, Marc Schiller, told the web-based media outlet. "The big summer blockbusters don't need more awareness; they need very targeted initiatives. It's not about hosing the Internet with information; it's about feeding the tastemakers and empowering them to go out and spread the word that's authentic."
Feeding the tastemakers. This could be translated as giving free crap to people that the rest of you will mindlessly follow. People like me, only less interested in the truth and more interested in free gear.
According to Business 2.0, Electric Artists recruits posses of fans around the country, calling them "street teams," and lets them in on privileged information such as when and where new trailers will be playing. "It's all viral," says Schiller. "We give it to the street team, and they go to message boards and chat rooms. They are doing it out of passion; they are not paid. We give them T-shirts, screening passes, signed posters. They want to be closer to the movie; they want to feel they are part of it."
Someone needs to clue Schiller in that yes, these people are indeed 'paid'. Any time you're giving someone something in return for them hyping your product, it's a payment, be it in the form of a T-shirt, a pizza and a case of beer, or a handful of fifty dollar bills. They're doing something because YOU asked them to, and they're not disclosing that fact. It's a con.
To get an idea of how these 'street teams' run, take a look at this website (http://on-linestreetteam.tripod.com/info/info.htm) and (http://on-linestreetteam.tripod.com/aguide.htm). These pages reveal how people are signed up and offered truckloads of free merchandise in return for sitting on their computers and littering websites with information about a client's product. They're even asked to track down emails of people who might be fans of what they're selling and email them personally.
You'll notice there's no mention of anyone needing to make sure to disclose the fact that they're being given freebies to do this. In fact, there's really nothing to ensure that these people even know what product they're selling, beyond a brand name, just sell hard and free gear is yours.
Of course, promoting films is what we're all about. We at HollywoodBitchslap/eFilmCritic are more than happy to promote a film we believe in. In fact, you'll note that we still put up regular reviews of My Big Fat Greek Wedding almost six months after it was first released. In addition, our front page features links to reviews of several small movies that we believe warrant bigger press and a wider audience.
Why do we do what we do? Because we're film fans. While some of our number are screenwriters, actors, directors, producers, and people who work at the studios, others are just people who love the flicks. We WANT to push the better movies. Unlike those 'recruits' on the 'street teams', if we think Punch Drunk Love is fantastic, we won't recite a scripted messageboard post, we'll review the movie a bunch of times, talk about it on our messageboard and scream the damn thing's title from the rooftops.
With that said, had any of these studios come to us and said "hey, you know we really like this film Punch Drunk Love, and we think it might be right up your alley. What can we do to get your writers to a screening and hook you up with some interviews?" - we'd have jumped through hoops to work with them.
But we don't get those opportunities. Sometimes, when films aren't even shown to critics, the only way we can do our job here is to break the rules and sneak into a test screening or have a secret dub taken directly off the editing suite by one of our contacts. Sometimes we even have to download films and watch them on our computer screens, because we can't get no love from the studios. And celebrity interviews? Forget about it.
Yet the studios do seem to think we're useful enough to utilize, just not pay for. They come to us regularly via deceptive means and use what we've built without ever giving back. Hell, for what it costs to pay for a team of 'volunteers' for a night of shameless shilling, you could probably buy this damn website - last year we made a little over one hundred bucks in advertising money and none of it was from the studios.
But don't get me wrong, we're not looking to sell out. We don't want Universal to give us the Harry Knowles treatment and send limos around to pick us up for our Cannes flight. But wouldn't it be nice if Universal came to us and threw down some dinero to promote a film they honestly thought was good? Wouldn't it be nice if we could then use that money to expand the site and give back something to the people who come here?
It's called 'cross promotion', and it used to be the buzzword in marketing before the marketers fell in love with street teams. Cross promotion helps everyone out - it brings us content, it brings our readers information and it brings the films good buzz. And most importantly, there's no deception involved.
That's all we're after - cooperation. Both ourselves and the studios are, after all, both interested in getting quality filmmaking out to the general public...
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=621
originally posted: 10/02/02 06:55:23
last updated: 10/03/02 07:25:44