June 26, 2001 -- Hollywood studios have been getting a bit too creative in their ad campaigns.
The industry known for its grand theatrics in building hype and excitement may find itself the subject of a legal battle for creating fictional hype while promoting its screen offerings.
Sony has admitted it created David Manning, a fictitious critic on a real Connecticut newspaper, who called Rob Schneider's goofball comedy The Animal "another winner!"
The studio further admitted that it gave staffers an extra job — posing as audience members to praise The Patriot. One "random" person called the Mel Gibson vehicle "the perfect date movie."
The Manning stunt left two employees on suspension, while sparking an investigation by the Connecticut attorney general's office, which will determine whether Sony may have run afoul of Federal Trade Commission rules governing advertising.
In the weeks since the Manning story came to light, more instances of questionable advertising have arisen.
Variety reports a former Fox Searchlight employee called Waking Ned Devine "hysterical" in an ad. The studio declined to comment on the report.
"To just make it up is deceptive and unethical," said Advertising Age editor Scott Donaton. "I think it's just as bad as if General Motors or Procter & Gamble did it."
Stepping on the Critics' Toes
In the world of filmmaking, where reviews and opinions can make or break a movie in the matter of a weekend, advertising is clearly a serious matter.
"I don't think that the kinds of things that Sony's been caught doing are widespread. I do think it's likely that you'll have a smattering of other examples pop up," said Donaton.
Sony admitted to employing Manning for four of its Columbia Pictures releases, Hollow Man, The Animal, Vertical Limit and A Knight's Tale, with the phony critic calling that film's leading man Heath Ledger "this year's hottest new star!"
But given the number of critics around, did they really have to lie?
"It's hard to imagine that they would find it hard to find a critic that likes something in America," said Washington Post critic Desson Howe. "This country is overpopulated with helium-filled movie critics who like anything."
And the over-the-top praises often seemed suspicious to Joel Siegel, film critic for ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
"I read a lot of quotes and I wonder, 'Who in the world would say this about that movie?'" said Siegel. "Nobody is surprised when Hollywood lies, they lie all the time. They tell us their movies are great and they [often] stink."
He was struck by how much weight is placed on critics' quotes. "I was laughing on the floor," said Siegel. "I had no idea [studios] were so concerned about what we said, concerned enough to lie about it!"
Attracting Too Much Attention
While movie advertising may not seem as potentially dangerous to consumers as a misleading campaign for health products, the phony critics could still do some harm, Donaton said.
"I think Hollywood has invited the FTC in the door here, the ad industry's worst fear," he said. "What the ad industry always tries to do is prove that [it's using] self-regulation and avoid federal regulation."
Hollywood is already facing FTC scrutiny. The government has accused studios of marketing violent content to young adults and wants that practice to end.
Donaton says the studios are well aware that they may need to clean up their advertising act, at least with respect to the testimonials. "We've done some reporting with the heads of major studios [who] say they're reviewing their marketing practices, making sure that the guidelines they have in place are being followed," he said.
While Howe is skeptical anything will change, he hopes at least the public will be more aware of the "hype factor" in Hollywood advertising, even if briefly.
"This will be forgotten," said Howe. "It's just a testament [that] it's an industry that needs people to go to movies at whatever cost."
But will it taint the words of the critics? Siegel doubts fans will stop reading reviews. "If anything, I think it will enhance what I do because I'm a real person!"