Hollywood's ad ethics gap

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Hollywood studio chiefs had better be scrambling to see that their advertising executives get schooled in the basics of truth-in-advertising before the next revelation of ad flimflam comes along. And if it takes a formal complaint by the Federal Trade Commission or some other regulator to get their attention, so be it.

Movie making is make-believe, where illusion and artifice are tools of the trade. Movie marketing, however, is no different in key ways than marketing for any product. There are standards, legally enforceable rules of fair play widely accepted elsewhere in business. Yet some movie studio ad executives were ignorant of the rules or, worse, held the dangerously arrogant view that they somehow don't apply in Hollywood and that, in any event, "everybody did it."

In the current mess over Sony's testimonial movie ads, Hollywood deserves no sympathy. The do's and don'ts of testimonials have been firmly established. Where was Hollywood when regulators insisted, and reputable marketers accepted, the principle that phony testimonials are beyond the pale? Where was Hollywood when it became settled business ethics that marketers don't use as endorsers people with a vested interest in the product without disclosing that interest to consumers?

It makes no difference that it's entertainment being sold here and not medicine or a big-ticket consumer item. No one should dispute that movie marketers can pick and choose among film critics in their hunt for ad blurbs, ballyhooing the raves and ignoring the pans. But Sony's other ploy-creating phony reviews by a phony critic-can't be excused. Likewise, it's OK to troll for enthusiastic testimonials from some filmgoers while ignoring "thumbs down" comments from others. But passing off studio employees as unbiased film fans in TV ad testimonials is flat wrong.

Hollywood executives are still digesting how and why some studio advertising and research people targeted young teens for movies their own industry code said were inappropriate for those under 17. Now comes this hanky-panky with testimonials. There's something wrong in today's movie marketing culture. Fixing it starts from the top. Demanding adherence to basic standards of truth in ads is the obvious place to start.

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