>From today's NY Times:
June 16, 2001
Sony Admits It Used Employees as Bogus Fans
By RICK LYMAN and STUART ELLIOTT
Still reeling from revelations that its advertising department had concocted
a phony film critic and used him to promote four Columbia Pictures releases,
Sony Pictures Entertainment has now admitted that two of its own employees
posed as ordinary moviegoers in on-the-street interviews to promote another
Columbia release last summer.
As reported in Daily Variety yesterday, the two employees in Sony's
worldwide marketing department appeared in a television advertisement for
"The Patriot," a Mel Gibson epic set during the Revolution that opened over
the Fourth of July weekend last year. The ad, known as a testimonial spot,
presented several people presumed to be ordinary moviegoers who had just
emerged from seeing "The Patriot."
One was Tamaya Petteway, the executive assistant to Columbia's executive
vice president for creative advertising, Dana Precious. Ms. Petteway
described the film as a "perfect date movie." Standing next to her and
smiling quietly was another Sony staff member, Anthony Jefferson.
"This appears to have been an isolated incident that occurred a year ago," a
Sony spokesman said today. "We've acknowledged that we are reviewing all of
our advertising procedures and our new policies will end the use of
The spokesman said that Sony ran another such testimonial ad this year, to
promote Guy Ritchie's film "Snatch," starring Brad Pitt and released in
January; in that instance all those in the commercial were audience members
who had signed the proper releases.
Ms. Precious, the executive in charge of the "Patriot" campaign, told
Variety that there was nothing unusual about using her own assistant in the
commercial. "Using actors, real people or employees as spokespeople is not
unique to the entertainment business, is not specific to Sony Pictures
Entertainment and is not something that is practiced only by me," she said.
Others in Hollywood, however, said that while actors have sometimes been
used in testimonial ads, they could not recall an instance in which a
studio's own employees were used.
"That's a sign of desperation," said Marvin Antonowsky, a retired marketing
executive who ran Columbia's marketing department from 1979 to 1985. "I have
never heard of it happening. It must have just been a last-minute act of
desperation and they didn't have enough time to do the ad properly."
A rival marketing executive said that his studio never used on-the- street
ads. "I don't like to use testimonials because I don't think they work," he
said. "Nobody believes them." Other Sony officials declined to comment today
on the incident, including Jeff Blake, the company's president for worldwide
marketing. But Mr. Blake did tell Variety that the use of employees posing
as audience members was not a "regular practice" at Sony and that new
policies would prevent it from happening again.
Mr. Blake, longtime chief of Sony's distribution system, also assumed
leadership of the marketing department earlier this year, long after "The
Patriot" ads ran.
The revelation could not have come at a worse moment for Columbia, which
said last week that it was suspending without pay for one month two
advertising executives, Josh Goldstine, senior vice president for creative
advertising, and Matthew Cramer, director of creative advertising ‹ for
their role in the phony film critic fiasco.
That incident began a few weeks ago when a Newsweek reporter, working on an
article about film press junkets, found that a critic named David Manning of
The Ridgefield Press, a weekly in Connecticut, was quoted as praising four
Columbia films in the last year although there is no such critic at that
newspaper. Mr. Manning, it turned out, was a college friend of Mr. Cramer's.
Mr. Cramer simply used his friend's name and hometown in the bogus
Besides humiliating Sony, the latest incident is raising fresh concern about
the use of testimonials from "real people" to overcome the skepticism that
many Americans, particularly the young, feel after being overexposed to the
scripted artifices of Madison Avenue.
In entertainment advertising, the commercials became popular in the late
1970's as a way to promote Broadway shows. Theatergoers are interviewed
after seeing plays and musicals and asked for their opinions in a kind of
on-the-street equivalent of advertisements brimming with laudatory
quotations from professional critics.
"You get hours and hours of tapes and you pick the best ones," said Chris
Boneau of Boneau/Bryan- Brown in New York, a theatrical public relations
It is unusual for people posing fraudulently as audience members to be
interspersed amid the general public in such commercials, Mr. Boneau said,
but it does happen. Still, he added, "it's too small an industry for people
to get away with it, because everyone knows everyone and could call them on
A specialist in advertising law condemned the idea of seeding a testimonial
commercial with fake "real people."
"It comes back to whether you misled the consumer," said Rick Kurnit, a
partner at the law firm of Frankfurt, Garbus, Kurnit, Klein & Selz in New
York. He added that "a biased endorsement" was misleading.
Still, he said, the entertainment industry has "always taken a much broader
view of what you can get away with in terms of puffery," for example, the
practice of seeking opinions from friends, colleagues and other readers with
vested interests in a book who turn up on the jacket offering enthusiastic
Federal Trade Commission guidelines governing testimonial advertising
stipulate that the testimonials must reflect the experience of the endorser,
must be truthful, must reflect what other consumers can expect to experience
and must be obtained in a manner that does not bias the opinion.
Doug Wood, executive partner with Hall, Dickler, Kent, Goldstein & Wood in
New York, another specialist in advertising law, said that the presence of
employees in a testimonial commercial for a studio's films "creates a moral
issue," because most people would reply yes "if they were asked would it
matter to you if these were employees and not consumers" praising the
"But I don't think it creates a judicable legal issue," he added, "because I
don't know that it rises to a level of deception that would pique the
interest of a regulator."
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