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Movie Web sites are ‘reel’ fakes

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The ad for a lawyer named Audrey Woods was impressive. It was also fake. Woods doesn't exist, her law firm is fictional and, oh, yeah, the Web site to which the ad directed readers? Phony.

Welcome to the latest trend in movie advertising: ads for products that don't exist. The Woods ad, which ran in newspapers in April, really advertised the romantic comedy "Laws of Attraction," in which Julianne Moore played Woods. Visitors to the Web site, which featured a questionnaire to help you determine whether your husband is a "scumbag," were eventually directed to a site for "Laws of Attraction."

Lots of movies are employing similar tactics to make their advertising more entertaining and involving, especially for young audiences:

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was advertised with a site that contained information on the film's totally made-up service to erase your memory.

"The Stepford Wives," opening Friday, has a similar site, which is all about how to turn your wife into a vacuum-cleaner-loving zombie.

The trailer for "I Love Huckabee's," which opens this fall, doesn't mention the movie; it's simply an ad for Huckabee's, the fictional department store where the film is set.

And the Web site for "Godsend" instructs grieving parents on how to clone their dead children.

It's the last site that has gotten the most attention. That's because it's the one that made people mad enough to threaten a lawsuit, charging that "Godsend" exploited the vulnerability of heartsick parents.

Bob Garfield, a critic who writes for Advertising Age magazine, calls the "Godsend" site "disgraceful." "It's a classic example of how allegedly creative people are so caught up in their own cunning that they neglect the obvious. Desperate, vulnerable people who have lost children find this in a Web search and have no idea it's a movie promotion because there's nothing there that gives any movie cues whatsoever, and they are gulled into thinking, even momentarily, that this is real. How could (advertisers) be so insensitive to the real world?"

The allegedly creative people aren't eager to answer that question. The studios behind "Stepford" and "Huckabee's" declined to comment, and New Line, which released "Laws of Attraction," would only supply the following, via e-mail: "Our advertisements are meant to generate attention for the movie in a fun and innovative way. They reflect the comedic spirit of the film and are clearly not intended to do anything else."

That's pretty much what Tom Ortenberg, president of the company that released "Godsend," thinks.

"The people who are outraged by this are people who just seem to enjoy getting outraged about stuff. They're just ambulance chasers," says Ortenberg. "The average person is spending about 10 minutes on the site, so you know it's . . . something of an interactive experience. When people click on, they don't necessarily know it's a joke, but when they leave the site, the majority know we're selling a movie."

Still, Ortenberg acknowledges the Web site, which has been altered so its trickery is more evident, could have fooled some people.

Ortenberg says they're moving into nontraditional marketing.

Web sites are effective and cheap.

"The Internet has become a key outlet to creating demand for films, for obvious reasons. That's where kids are. In advertising, everyone wonders what happened to the 14- to 22-year-old males. Well, they're online," says Rob Buchner, managing partner at Fallon Inc., the Minneapolis-based agency that has done work on a number of films, including the upcoming "I, Robot."

Buchner says the Internet can be a great way to market to young people. "Youth culture rewards creativity," says Buchner. "They are savvy, so when a marketer really tries to bring them into an entertainment experience, where they can participate and are rewarded through that involvement, they'll tell their friends. These sites get this 'viral' pass-along factor, which is a very cost-effective way to promote any product."

Long story short: Get ready for movie Internet sites to look a lot more like video games.

"Everyone knows when they're being sold to, but I think the key to marketing successfully, especially to teenagers, is to make it fun and get them on the inside of it," Buchner says.

According to Ortenberg, this tactic — which had its first application with "The Blair Witch Project" — works especially well with a movie that has an "Is it real?" factor, such as "Godsend" or "Eternal Sunshine." It doesn't work as well with other types of films, which is why his company's period Dutch drama "Girl With a Pearl Earring" did not have a Web site asking people if they'd like to be painted by Vermeer. "What we're dealing with is studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars placing their ads two or three weeks before opening, and they are seeing diminishing returns on that investment. So they're in an experimental stage," says Buchner.

Garfield suggests Hollywood's advertising honchos may not be as familiar with the word "ethics." He disputes Ortenberg's contention that his "Godsend" Web site did pretty much the same thing Orson Welles did, 70 years ago, with "War of the Worlds," a radio drama that purported to be a warning of an alien invasion.

"I just want to point out that, in 'War of the Worlds,' someone came on periodically to tell listeners that it was a drama," says Garfield. "People still panicked, but there is a responsibility for marketers who are creating false universes to declare themselves. Otherwise, a petty fraud can devolve into a serious one."

Chris Hewitt writes for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.); E-mail: chewittpioneerpress.com