OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

One of the best campaigns by the old Doyle Dane Bernbach agency

carried the theme "Sony. No baloney", which successfully differentiated

the TVs sold by Sony as coming from a company that wouldn't fool


Would that executives at Columbia Pictures, the movie studio now owned

by Sony, had recalled those wise words.

Columbia finds itself embroiled in a flap regarding faked ads for four

films, which used laudatory quotations purportedly from a critic for a

small newspaper in Connecticut. The blurbs turned out to have been

concocted within the advertising and marketing departments at Columbia

Pictures. Under the name David Manning and the newspaper The Ridgefield

Press, the movies and their stars were raved about in pithy, puffy

phrases that seemed too good to be true.

And they were.

For instance, ads for A Knight's Tale had Manning gushing that the lead

actor, Heath Ledger, was "this year's hottest new star!" And ads for The

Animal had Manning enthusing that "the producing team of Big Daddy has

delivered another winner!"

After the fraud was uncovered by Newsweek magazine, and Sony apologised,

the fiasco received intensive coverage in both the entertainment and

general media.

You could practically hear the teeth gnashing all the way back to

Madison Avenue at all the attention the phony ads were getting - far,

far more than any real ads have generated lately, except perhaps for the

"whassup?" campaign. (One could imagine how Columbia would have tried

putting that across, maybe having the "whassup?" guys claim that

drinking Budweiser cures cancer.)

Newsweek and many others pointed out how deliciously ironic the phony

blurbing was. Why? The Hollywood movie studios are notorious for

inviting critics from small, unknown publications and websites on

all-expenses-paid junkets that almost always yield wildly enthusiastic

reviews that can be featured prominently in newspaper ads and TV


Some of those critics are even known to be easily steered into saying

exactly what the studios paying for their trips, meals and hotel rooms

want them to. So what was the need for Manning's make-believe


Maybe it was a practical joke gone awry, the result of a junior

executive attaching a friend's name to a typically over-the-top quote

and then adding it to actual blurbs - and smirking every time the gag

showed up. Indeed, Variety identified Manning as "an old college chum"

of one of two low-level Columbia executives who were suspended for 30

days without pay after Newsweek blew the whistle. Variety suggested the

quotes were simply "a sly wink at his old buddy".

Or maybe it was just an ugly reminder of how much pressure the studio

marketers now find themselves under to put over big-budget movies, which

increasingly rely on mass ad campaigns to drive ticket sales. Years ago,

a film could be nurtured to success by building on positive

word-of-mouth among satisfied moviegoers. That's rare today as films

flood thousands of screens on their opening weekends; they require the

appearance of being smash hits immediately to not lose those outlets to

the movies coming seven days later.

Besides, everyone should have realised that the quotes were phony


The usual suspects in movie ads typically use two or three exclamation

points per puffy phrase.