Movie studio issues apology for staging artificial news sites as part of a promotional campaign for “A Cure For Wellness”
It has been a tough week for 20th Century Fox in the ramp up for the premier of its newest film. The psychological thriller “A Cure For Wellness”, directed by Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) was released on Friday in just over 2,700 theaters.
The days leading up to the debut have seen the studio lurching to explain itself for what has become a controversial online promotional campaign. The movie concerns an executive sent to a spa in the Swiss Alps to recover a company CEO who is checked in. The spa is revealed as more of a sanitarium, and as events unspool the executive’s sanity unravels. Fox attempted to play off of the mental health content in its promotions.
The studio created a number of fabricated local news outlets, as well as a fake “wellness” website, that generated purported news items that were molded with items similar to the movie’s plot. Many of the stories concerned President Trump, and deeper in the articles readers were presented with content referencing the movie. Sometimes readers were urged to go to social media and post the hashtag of the film’s title. Banner ads for the film also populated on the pages.
Fox’s faux sites were called The Houston Leader, The Salt Lake City Guardian, Sacramento Dispatch, The NY Morning post, and Indianapolis Gazette. They also created healthandwellness.co, which had similar content-marrying to the film. (All site addresses now direct you straight to the official movie website.)
One story claimed a man who viewed the movie was left in “a catatonic state.” Another detailed that “Trump Depression Disorder” was a valid malady, and it encouraged readers to spread awareness with a #CureForWellness hashtag. When initially confronted with what it was doing the studio defended its actions on Feb. 14, chalking the moves up to viral promotional campaigning.
- “A Cure for Wellness” is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker. 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. As our movie’s antagonist says, ‘There is a sickness inside us. And only when we know what ails us, can we hope to find the cure.
As the week went forward however the tepid defense was not accepted. More outlets online decried the actions of the studio, tying the online promo efforts to the swirling specter of ‘fake-news’ that is enraging many (including those who have dispensed their own version of artificial “info-tainment”.) As more heat was generated about the outreach the studio backtracked entirely from the viral campaign.
First, the URL for each of the fabricated outlets were altered to redirect to the film’s primary site. However a trace of footprints are still left by the sites. The search engine returns still allude to the false medical reports.
Snopes also has a lengthy pull quote from one of the Donald Trump articles.
Finally by the end of the week 20th Century Fox fully recanted. The studio issued a second statement, making a full apology for the wrongheaded online campaign.
- “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. The digital campaign was inappropriate on every level, especially given the trust we work to build every day with our consumers. 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.”
The hysterics surrounding fake news surely raised the sensitivity of the promotional effort, and there is no way of measuring how calculated this was by the studio. It very likely was a case acting now, and apologizing later.
However even the case of negative press leading to free publicity fell short. “A Cure For Wellness” opened as the #10 title on the box office chart for the opening weekend, earning a meager $4.2 million against its budget of $40 million.