June 20, 2001 -- HOLLYWOOD (Variety) — Days after Columbia Pictures copped to depicting company employees as "fans" offering rave reviews for TV ads, another studio has joined the hall of shame.
Fox Searchlight's 1998 release Waking Ned Devine concerns an entire town working together to fool the authorities.
Now it turns out the studio was working to fool moviegoers, attempting to pass off one of its advertising staffers as a "man on the street" moviegoer in TV ads for the picture.
In a national TV spot, Caren Lipson — who was then executive assistant to Fox Searchlight Vice President of Creative Advertising Samantha Hart — jubilantly proclaimed the film "hysterical!" Lipson, cheerfully posing with her "date," appeared in a montage of interviews cross-cut against scenes from the film.
The revelation comes only days after Fox Searchlight bragged about its marketing credibility in newspaper ads for current release Sexy Beast. The ads exhorted moviegoers to "read honest-to-God rave reviews at www.foxsearchlight.com."
All this is a reference to Columbia's recent marketing transgressions: fabricating a phony critic, and using "fans" who were actually Columbia marketing employees in a nationally televised spot for last year's Mel Gibson movie The Patriot.
Lipson now is employed at Universal Pictures' theatrical marketing division, where she is understood to administer movie Web sites that promote Universal's films.
Reached by telephone at her office, Lipson said, "I absolutely refuse to talk about this" — and then hung up.
"Waking Ned Devine was released under a completely different Searchlight regime, and the people responsible for its marketing are no longer here," said Nancy Utley, president of marketing for Fox Searchlight, in a prepared statement.
Utley added, "We are disheartened that deceptive advertising practices eroded the public trust to an all-time low, forcing us to use full, unedited reviews to showcase the critical acclaim of a film like [new release] Sexy Beast." She declined to elaborate on the statement.
Bob Harper, 20th Century Fox's vice chairman and the executive who ultimately oversaw Fox's marketing efforts when the Ned Devine spots featuring Lipson aired, was unavailable for an interview.
But a rep for 20th Century Fox, Florence Grace, said, "No one who works here has any firsthand knowledge of it," adding, "and that includes Mr. Harper."
Valerie Van Galder, who was head of marketing for Fox Searchlight at the time of the spot, acknowledged that while she knew of Lipson's appearance in the ad, "at the time, advertising was really not my area of expertise."
By way of explanation, Van Galder, who now works for Sony Screen Gems, added, "I was hired to handle mainly publicity, and I honestly trusted the judgement of the people who were making the spots to know the [Federal Trade Commission] guidelines."
(According to FTC regulations, whenever there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product "that might materially affect the weight and credibility of the endorsement, such connection must be fully disclosed.")
Samantha Hart, the former Searchlight advertising vice president responsible for creating the employee testimonial spot, could not be reached for comment.
The divulgence of Fox Searchlight's advertising practices closely follows Sony-owned Columbia's admission last week that two marketing employees were used in ads to promote The Patriot.
The Sony ad exec responsible for the Patriot spots, Dana Precious, had defended her use of studio employees as "not specific to Sony Pictures Entertainment and not something that is practiced only by me."
In a statement issued Friday, Jeff Blake, Sony's president of worldwide marketing, said the use of employees posing as moviegoers was "never a regular practice" and new procedures would "make it a concrete policy not to use this form of advertising in the future."
"I think these aberrations are stupid and unnecessary," Motion Picture Association of America President and CEO Jack Valenti told Daily Variety Tuesday. "Sooner or later, you're going to be found out."
Such marketing practices could be used as fodder by critics of Hollywood, so for that reason alone it's a concern, Valenti said.
An FTC spokeswoman declined to comment on the incidents, saying the regulatory agency does not disclose whether it is investigating a company for violations of its advertising standards and practices.