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Marketing campaigns are often designed to push boundaries and generate a buzz, but a recent marketing campaign that embraced the notions of fakery may have gone too far—especially in the modern environment, in which alternative facts and fake news are politically charged and highly controversial concepts.

To promote its horror film A Cure for Wellness, 20th Century Fox sought to leverage the frightening plot in its marketing. The premise of the psychological horror movie centers around a fake product that promises to cure patients of various maladies, but it actually makes the patient sicker. The protagonist’s fight to expose the cure as fake results in his own confinement and torture. Thus 20th Century Fox believed it had a rare opportunity to capitalize on the nation’s current preoccupation with the concept of fake news, so it partnered with a fake news creator to publish a series of inflammatory articles that loosely tied into the movie’s plot.

These fake news stories were published online by plausible-sounding organizations, such as The Houston Leader and The Salt Lake City Guardian (neither of which is real). The articles discussed hot-button topics such as President Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, criminal penalties for women receiving abortions, and Lady Gaga’s plans for a tribute to the Muslim religion during her halftime performance at the Super Bowl. The articles mixed verifiable information (e.g., open-minded quotes about acceptance from Gaga; actual tweets from Trump) with fake details and information. Then they incorporated minor plot details from the movie in each story.

Ultimately, the articles were widely shared on social media. An estimated 65,000 people shared the Lady Gaga story. Few readers or sharers seemed to realize that the articles they were spreading were fake or that they were part of a stunt marketing campaign to promote a film.

Once the deceptive articles were uncovered as a marketing ploy by the news organization Buzzfeed though, advertising watchdog groups cried out against the questionably ethical actions of 20th Century Fox in this campaign. Both the Society of Professional Journalists and TruthinAdvertising.org issued statements accusing the studio of acting in a deceptive and unethical manner.

Within a week, the public outcry led Regency Enterprises (a producer of the film) and 20th Century Fox to issue an apology and pull the campaign. The attempt at a creative marketing campaign was successful in creating a buzz, but the buzz did not center around the intended topic—namely, the product being marketing. Instead, the effort left 20th Century Fox searching for its own cure to the headache it caused by creating such a negative reaction among consumers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. The use of a hoax can be an effective marketing gimmick. Why did 20th Century Fox’s fake news campaign ultimately fail?
  2. Could an application of the ethical decision-making framework have prevented 20th Century Fox from making what ultimately turned out to be a poor decision?

Source: Sapna Maheshwari, “20th Century Fox Gives Real Apology for a Fake News Campaign,” The New York Times, February 16, 2017; Liam Stack, “20th Century Fox Used Fake News to Publicize ‘A Cure for Wellness,’” The New York Times, February 15, 2017