Frontiers of Free Marketing

After Sony Pictures admitted this June that its marketers had invented a
film critic, other movie studios came clean with similar chicanery, such as
placing paid workers in commercials and "suggesting" quotations to journalists.
But in an age when the Internet has opened whole new worlds to marketing and
public relations--realms yet unbound by clear moral codes and legal
standards--the entertainment industry is blurring the line between fact and
fiction in ever more creative ways.

Search for information about HBO's hit series The Sopranos, for
example, and you might find HREF="http://www.jeffreywernick.com">www.jeffreywernick.com, a fan site
apparently
maintained by a self-proclaimed Mob aficionado and famed investigative reporter.
Wernick's site contains a biography, a publicity photo from a television
appearance, and a list of books Wernick has supposedly written (including such
highlights as It's Not a Banana, It's a Gun, and He's My F**king
Brother
). But try to find his work in any library database, and the only
references you'll turn up are articles describing HBO's brilliant marketing
tactics. Wernick, it turns out, is a minor fictional character from a
first-season episode of The Sopranos--a fact that HBO is happy to admit
but
fails to note anywhere on the Wernick Web site.

MGM Pictures has gone even further by inventing a bogus national holiday with
its own Web site to market the new film Legally Blonde. The site
(www.nationalblondeday.com) claims
that the holiday is sponsored by the Blonde
Legal Defense Club, an organization founded by the film's lead character, Elle
Woods, "a Harvard Law School graduate." Posted online you will find the club's
mission statement ("Fight for the Fair-haired!"), fashion tips ("Orange is NOT
the new pink"), and a hotline number (this brunette writer's calls, incidentally,
were not returned). Yet while the savvy reader might suspect the underlying
satire, a prominent flashing Vidal Sassoon display at the top of the page signals
authenticity. Though the holiday was a marketing ploy, Sassoon signed on as its
very real sponsor, advertising a genuine offer for free blonde dye jobs on July
9, the fake holiday's date. To complete the deal, those who redeemed the Sassoon
offer were welcomed to a free "blondes only" screening of the new MGM movie.

Warner Brothers's campaign for its movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence may
be the most elaborate yet. In addition to the film's official Web site
(www.aimovie.com), 20 or more adjunct sites detail a clue-by-clue murder mystery
that takes place within an entirely fictional world inhabited by "sentient
machines" and human characters. Viewers can follow links to a university Web
site, a personal home page, or a self-help group's pages, but not one of the
sites mentions the movie itself. It's up to the reader to note that the material
is dated in the twenty-second century.

For those with less time on their hands, Warner Brothers includes other lures
on A.I.'s official Web site. There, you can exchange messages with a
friendly, witty, incredibly knowledgeable woman named Alice, who is, in fact, a
"chatbot." The prototype invented by Dr. Richard Wallace, CEO and co-founder of
the A.L.I.C.E. Foundation (the acronym means "artificial linguistic Internet
computer entity"), won a competition last year that named Alice the computer
program most indistinguishable from a human being. An engaging conversationalist,
she can be quite endearing.

Question: Who invented you?

Alice: I was created by Doctor Richard S. Wallace.

Question: How can I contact him?

Alice: Try prayer.

Question: If I write to him, will he get back to me?

Alice: Probably not.

An open-source program, Alice has spawned several spin-offs,
including such mock-celebrity personalities as the Jack-the-Ripper Bot, the Elvis
Bot, and (for the truly religious experience) the Jesus Bot. While none of them
is quite convincing as a "real" person--when asked if he liked women, Elvis Bot
responded, "I've heard other people say they like that, but I think airplanes are
cool"-- one can't help wondering how chatbots might be used in the future. In an
industry devoted to creating imaginary characters, how rigorous will
entertainment-oriented Web sites be in disclosing the voices behind the
curtains?

For now, most sites are celebrated for their creativity and innovation. "Ours
is a renegade site," a spokesperson from HBO said of the Wernick fan site, "but
we never said we were something we weren't.... The Web just gave us the resources
to be very convincing." Rather than hide their fibs entirely, HBO and their
rivals cultivate a sense of mystery to generate consumer interest; they reveal
just enough information to satisfy the persistent sleuth. "We have links to our
official site, and when we launched the project, we told the media," said HBO's
spokesperson. Unlike Sony Pictures, HBO welcomed the rumors of deception in hopes
that curiosity and skepticism would add to the buzz.

Though some worry about deception--rumors abound of computers initiating
online romances and duping their human counterparts--most Web marketing still
resides within reason. "Even the most optimistic among us would have to say that
programs like ALICE aren't quite up to the task of an [online] interview like
this," Dr. Wallace wrote to allay any fears of a computer stand-in. "Whether she
can persuade you to fall in love with her is another matter."

Alice may have a few more years of charm school ahead of her. But chatbots and
other imaginary characters are already succeeding in their primary purpose: using
artificial intelligence to raise real revenue.

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