The dangers of buying fan activity

As more and more marketers get savvy to the potential of online fan buzz to at least raise interest in a product, fans online seem to be getting increasingly wary. It can be seen in the controversy swirling around whether YouTube star, lonelygirl15, is real or a viral marketing blitz leading up to something not yet announced. Even the New York Times’s Screens blogger is obsessing on this one. Trying to figure it out seems to have become part of the fun. (Update 2 days later: indeed, she’s fiction, as danah boyd covers nicely here. But some are insisting it’s the revelation that’s fake and that lonelygirl15 is real…)

Less fun is this editorial arguing that Paramount Pictures has taken over fansites for the upcoming Transformers movie, banning critics and replacing them with people singing the film’s praises:

A few weeks ago, no a few days ago, the buzz on Michael Bay’s upcoming Transformers movie was pretty bad. Fans were in an uproar over recently released pics of what it is that Bay is doing to their beloved robots. [...]

But over the past few weekends there’s been a shift. Paramount’s goons have taken control of the situation by pouring a wad of cash into it, and suddenly everything’s coming up roses. For instance, go to the once fan populated message board of Transformers producer Don Murphy… and you’ll find nothing but popcorn and bubblegum for the film where outrage, disappointment, and calls for boycott once stood.

There’s a reason for that. The dissenting voices have been banned and beaten down with threats.

Surf around the internet to those movie sites that were once critical of the film, and in place of their hard hitting reports about how Paramount might be screwing up, you’ll find set reports praising the film for being “faithful” and lauding the very things about the film they’d trashed only a few weeks before. It’s easy to be positive when you get an all expenses paid vacation to a movie set I guess. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been lured in by it myself. But let’s not blame this all on set visits. For some of these offenders the ass-kissing began when they got their first call from Paramount weeks ago. It’s only culimated in this.

Yes, Paramount is turning the buzz around for their Transformers project, and they’re doing it with a big silencer. Those not already bought and paid for are probably afraid to open their mouths. After all, this is the movie studio that had a website shut down for daring to run an unapproved photo.

Whether this is true or not is almost beside the point. As soon as fan activity on the internet is seen as filled with people who’ve been bought off by producers or marketing campaigns disguised as authentic self-made materials, all buzz becomes suspect, to say nothing of the consequences for honest relationships amongst fans and one another and between fans and artists/producers.

Comments (6) to “The dangers of buying fan activity”

  1. Interesting…I’ve heard that many adoption listservs have a similar problem. The agencies have their employees pose a adoptive parents and then have them give recommendations on private listservs. And if another person chooses to criticize that particular agency they always have someone ready and able to respond with an opposite account.

    I think it does leave people on those listservs very distrustful of anyone they don’t “know”. But, of course the stakes are much higher for the individuals posting.

  2. Oh, Nancy, I can’t tell you how angry I am now that I’ve read that. This kind of thing sickens me, and I’ve known for a fact that it goes on for a while now. In fact, I’ve had similar threats myself…I run a website about a British comedian, and we like to put up whatever news and gossip we can get when he’s making a new show. Pretty understandable, I think. He seems to be a bit of a control freak though, and his projects are always “shrouded in secrecy”, even when there’s no real reason for this to be the case.

    Ok, so we ran an update which mentioned a gag that was going to be in his new show…it was about trendy media wankers, and one of them went to get a haircut, but instead of a mirror the barber was actually using a webcam and a huge plasma screen. That’s it, that’s the whole gag. We printed that up, and before long I got a very angry and nasty email from a woman working on the show who claimed that people could “get sacked” over my update! I thought this was a disgraceful thing for her to do, it put a lot of pressure on me, and it preyed on my mind for months afterwards.

    When the show eventually went out, this gag turned out to be just an inconsequential sight gag! A blink-and-you-miss-it thing.

    Some other examples that spring to mind…the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy movie was reviewed by a vaguely notorious Hitchhikers fan on the internet…and he slated it, absolutely tore it to shreds. Now, a bloke that I know was at the premiere, and he got talking to some of the marketing people. They told him that they were planning to flood the internet with positive “reviews” in order to counteract this one bad one (which was so vicious that it was getting posted round everywhere.)

    One more example…the people behind the comedy show “Little Britain” (a dreadful affair, dealing in so-called ironic racism) tried very hard to control internet fan-sites, going as far as threatening to sue them for no real reason. Some fans had taken notes of the running order of sketches at a filming, and they received angry and abusive emails demanding that they take them down at once, or face the legal consequences. And we’re talking about a running order here…what harm could that possibly do?

    I’ll understand if you want to edit out the names of the show and movie here.

  3. Incidentally, I did a quick Google in order to try and verify this story, and found the following site…it seems to be the one mentioned in the last paragraph that you quoted:

  4. Thanks for the investigative journalism Neil! Interesting and interestinger. And thx also for your input on your own experiences, about which I hope to hear more.

  5. No probs…in case you’re interested, here’s the original posts about the Hitchhikers “viral campaign”…incidentally, another knock-on effect of this kind of thing is that people who sign up to messageboards and make a positive first post can sometimes take a lot of abuse for being a suspected “viral poster”, I’ve seen this a lot.

    Oh yes, and the ‘viral’ campaign will be beginnning in a few days. I heard from a very high source in the film that they are going to ‘flood’ the internet with rave reviews to drown out Simpson’s one. So get ready.

    It was a definite strategy of the HHGG production to ‘flood’ the internet with postive reviews to ‘drown out’ the negative review that MJ Simpson came out within the weeks before the film was released. One of their methods would surely have been posting positive reviews on forums. I imagine this is a widespread tactic, especially with something with an already sizeable audience, like Hitchhiker’s.

  6. Yeah — the ‘suspected viral poster’ phenomenon is probably what troubles me the most here. It disrupts the potential for honest relationships amongst fans.