The press release is dead (thankfully). What's the point when you can manufacture good gossip?
This week, the full 100-minutes of Warner Bros.' live-action Pokémon: Detective Pikachu was made available on the Internet, two days prior to the film's scheduled release. Ryan Reynolds, the voice of the OG Pokémon, took it upon himself to alert the studio about the leak—on Twitter.
Of course, in reality, the video is one satisfying minute of the film's opening credits, followed by an even more satisfying hour and 40 minutes of an expressive Pikachu doing aerobic exercises. If that were the actual film, it'd almost be worth director Rob Letterman's $150 million budget. As a PR stunt (initiated by a mysterious new YouTuber named "Inspector Pikachu"), it's incredibly effective, fast, and cheap marketing.
POKÉMON Detective Pikachu: Full Picture youtu.be
It's also Reynolds' second ingenious use of Internet culture and the scandalous appeal of "leaked" footage to promote his films. The 42-year-old actor fought studios to produce Deadpool for 10 years without making headway until the summer of 2014 when a few minutes of test footage "leaked" online and fan response demanded a full feature film. Deadpool is now one of the highest grossing R-rated movies of all time, with Ryan Reynolds almost certainly responsible for the "leak."
But sadly, the PR stunts that gave Reynolds his career are rare success stories of promotional gambits. Sometimes, when Hollywood agencies or mega-million dollar companies attempt to be in on the massive joke known as the Internet, it backfires with wildly offensive, expensive, or even lethal results.
When Bill Cosby Used Memes to Make Light of Sexual Assault
In 2014, public sentiment was only starting to turn against "America's Dad." The first of what would become a cavalcade of survivors from Cosby's years of sexual assault had just publicly shared their stories. In response, someone on the actor's PR team decided it was a good idea to launch a CosbyMeme campaign. In a since-deleted tweet, users were linked to a meme generator that invited people to caption photos of Cosby with whatever they wanted–whatever they wanted.
Writer Dan Barker soon pointed out what Cosby's PR team thought people would post, from innocuous and kitschy captions like "#NOMNOMNOM I love cookies!" to corny dad jokes like, "Hey! Look over there. Made you look."
Instead, Twitter users showed the PR team exactly what Twitter is about, producing jarring memes that called out the actor for his criminal behavior. From condemnatory captions reading "Hello my name is Bill Cosby, I am the star of the classic 90's comedy 'Ghost Dad.' Also I am a serial rapist" to blunt satires like "She can't say no if she's unconscious," the memes generated from Team Cosby's attempt at levity revealed the campaign's appalling lack of taste.
Taco Bell Used 50 Cent to Promote Their (Sort of) Dollar Menu
What would you expect from a "Mexican" food chain called "Taco Bell" that was founded by an American named Glen William Bell Jr. other than exploitation? In 2009, the brand disregarded intellectual property and even common courtesy when they launched a campaign to promote their new menu of items that cost less than a dollar. Taco Bell's PR team apparently thought strategy meetings were just rapid games of word association because rapper 50 Cent was the best idea they came up with.
The food chain published an open letter in national news outlets. Addressed to 50 Cent (real name Curtis Jackson) himself, the company pleaded with the rapper to change his name to "79 Cent," "89 Cent," or "99 Cent" for one day. In exchange, Taco Bell promised to donate $10,000 to a charity of his choice.
Instead, 50 Cent sued Taco Bell for $4 million. Spokesman Rob Poetsch defended that the campaign was genuinely for charity, stating, "We made a good faith, charitable offer to 50 Cent to change his name to either 79, 89 or 99 Cent for one day by rapping his order at a Taco Bell, and we would have been very pleased to make the $10,000 donation to the charity of his choice." However, the main legal flaw in the company's plan was publishing the letter in major news outlets rather than contacting the rapper directly. 50 Cent had to learn from the news that his name was being used to promote Taco Bell's creepy "Caramel Apple Empanada."
No! BAD, Taco Bell!Ryan Giles
R&B Singer Ashanti Sent Death Threats to All Her Fans
On the singer's 2008 album, The Declaration, one of the singles titled "The Way That I Love You" is about a woman enacting revenge against her lover who cheated on her—by murdering him. Inspired, her PR team launched a marketing campaign that featured fake news footage about a "copycat murderer" who went on a rampage after seeing Ashanti's music video for the song. The fake video clips included fake threats graffitied in fake blood, but the words were genuinely alarming, including "Black children will die." Additionally, a fake detective identified the fake killer as "commercial hip-hop" itself, which, the whole project's poor taste aside, is an insultingly lame line.
Even worse, a second wave of the PR stunt sent fans personalized emails from a fake detective who claimed that their lives were in danger (to quote John Mulaney, "you know, like a crime?"). The emails included a link to another fake news report about a rampaging killer couple who were targeting people in the receiver's circle of friends. The email would ask, "Do you know the person pictured in the following video. If so, please contact me immediately. Your life might be in danger." Attached was more fake news footage showing a fake crime scene where the individual's real name would be scrawled in fake blood.
What the fucking fuck?
It turns out that the emails were a specially designed type of "gotcha gram" that Ashanti's record label, Universal Music, actually promoted. Users could visit the since-deleted website, fill out any friend's or relative's information, and anonymously send a death threat all for the sake of Ashanti's crappy R&B music. For the record, only about 80,000 copies of the singer's album were sold. When asked to comment about the spectacularly stupid stunt, Ashanti defended it by saying it was "a better alternative to actual violence" and called the campaign "an incredible online viral tool."
Sometimes publicity stunts are brilliant manipulations of online culture's intrusive nature; sometimes they're actual crimes for the sake of earning a profit; and, at others, PR stunts are just criminally stupid.
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