20th Century Fox apologizes for fake news campaign

The studio said the digital marketing effort was ‘inappropriate on every level, especially given the trust we work to build every day with our consumers.’

As communicators grapple with the epidemic of fake news and how it destroys credibility, one organization has accepted blame for its active participation.

The studio recently apologized for launching a campaign that used fake news to promote its psychological thriller, “A Cure for Wellness.”

The mea culpa came after Buzzfeed published an investigative report on Tuesday:

At the core of the campaign is a network of five fake local news sites that are inserting promotional references to the film into hoaxes. The sites also host ads for the film and for a fake water brand that in at least one case directs people to a website directly linked to the film.

The fake local news sites mostly publish hoaxes about topics unrelated to the film, and in some cases their fake stories — such as one about Donald Trump implementing a temporary ban on vaccinations — have been picked up by real websites and generated significant engagement on Facebook thanks to people being fooled. Their biggest hit so far is a fake story about Lady Gaga planning to include a tribute to Muslims during the Super bowl performance. It generated more than 50,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Here’s what one false news article looked like:

20th Century Fox contracted with at least one fake-news creator (which it would not name) and created five sites that mirrored real local news sites:Sacramento Dispatch, Indianapolis Gazette, NY Morning Post, Houston Leader and Salt Lake City Guardian.

Buzzfeed explained:

The sites also run many of the same fake stories. For example, a false story, “‘Trump Depression Disorder’ Classified As A Disease By The AmericanMedical Association” appears on all of the sites. Notably, the story ends with a call to action for the public “to tweet #cureforwellness to raise awareness of the growing epidemic.” That’s the hashtag for the film.

The stories continued to spread through social media and were reported on real news sites, in part because neither the false articles nor the false news sites were clearly marked as sponsored content.

The Washington Post reported:

It required such digging because the websites didn’t contain any disclaimers or other indication that they were not, in fact, legitimate publications. Scattered throughout some stories were prompts for readers to share their thoughts on social media using #acureforwellness.

For this to mean anything to readers, they would have had to know either the title of the then-unreleased film or search the hashtag on Twitter. As most news consumers offer roughly 15 seconds of their attention to a story, according to Tony Haile, the founding chief executive of Chartbeat, it’s unlikely that many took these steps to verify their sources.

The New York Times reported:

It used other fake sites to promote the film as well, including one designed to resemble HealthCare.Gov and another for a fake bottled water company. Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox acknowledged their role in the fake news operation in a statement on Tuesday.

“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.”

“The use of hoax websites to build interest is unprecedented,” The Verge reported.

The studio declined to answer reporters’ questions, which included whether there were additional fake news sites beyond what Buzzfeed had reported and whether 20th Century Fox had previously launched fake news campaigns, The New York Times reported.

After Buzzfeed’s report was published, most of the fake news sites’ domains redirected visitors to the film’s website.

On Thursday, the studio apologized for the campaign.

Variety reported:

“In raising awareness for our films, we do our best to push the boundaries of traditional marketing in order to creatively express our message to consumers. In this case, we got it wrong,” a statement from the studio said.

“The digital campaign was inappropriate on every level, especially given the trust we work to build every day with our consumers,” the statement continued. “We have reviewed our internal approval process and made appropriate changes to ensure that every part of a campaign is elevated to and vetted by management in order to avoid this type of mistake in the future. We sincerely apologize.”

Though the studio apologized, it might not be enough to undo the damage its campaign caused to the communications industry.

The New York Times reported:

“Fake news is not a cute or silly subject,” said Susan Credle, global chief creative officer of the ad agency FCB. “When you start to tear down media and question what’s real and what’s not real, our democracy is threatened.”

Topics: PR

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