You know you have a true cultural phenomenon on your hands when it pops up on the covers of both Time and Newsweek during the same week. So it goes with The Blair Witch Project, the surprise hit thriller of the summer. This is the little movie that could, the do-it-yourself dream that shamed all the multi-million pound summer blockbusters like Wild Wild West. No film in recent memory has had such incredibly good word of mouth.
But did they cheat?
That's the accusation that some Hollywood marketers and Web watchers are leveling. They say that some of the Blair Witch buzz online was actually planted by people connected with the project and therefore doesn't count somehow. What an absurd suggestion! Since when is marketing -- in whatever form -- judged by some high standard of propriety? The whole idea of marketing is manipulation, and if the Blair Witch producers have proved anything, they've proved how good they are at playing with people's heads. (It is indeed a truly creepy film.)
To me, fake word of mouth is fine, as long as I encounter it in the appropriate context. If I'm flipping through a film fanatic newsgroup, who knows what I'll find? Some good conversation, some craziness, some PR flackery. It's always a mix, and I expect it.
It's a slightly different situation if I venture to a site like Ain't It Cool News. It's here that Harry Knowles, movie fan extraordinaire, has made a career out of being something of a maestro of buzz. As a clearing house for gossip and early reviews of upcoming releases, Harry is a prime target for those who would attempt to put a positive spin on a soon-to-be-released picture, and he knows it. Over time, he's also been accused of being swayed by the loving overtures of various studios and producers. Who knows where the truth lies? Again, I know to trust what I read at this site only up to a point, but given that the site has an editor who is supposed to be an arbiter of useful content, I'd hope that Harry keeps as vigilant an eye as possible on what gets posted.
And have you ever wondered about the reader reviews at Amazon.com? What's to stop every employee at Random House from writing glowing reviews of the latest Random House releases? Absolutely nothing. It's interesting to note that hardly anyone ever writes a so-so review at Amazon.com. Why expend the energy on what was an unremarkable experience? Either it's "a book that changed my life" or it's "a piece of garbage". With such a huge customer base and the potential for a single bestseller to have a thousand reviews, I don't think it's really possible to run around Amazon.com stuffing the ballot box, so to speak; but again, you have to accept the information you get from reader reviews for what it is. (As you will recall, Amazon.com walks a fine line. It was lambasted for selling paid positions on its home page under very editorial-looking headlines. It has since attempted to clear up that confusion by revealing where the paid positions are located.)
So yes, the Web is going to be used for marketing both obvious and subtle. There's no reason to be shocked that it's going on. It's only going to get worse as more and more people get hip to success stories like Blair Witch. We're dealing with a very inexpensive communications medium here, and there is no cheaper way of generating word of mouth (or what I suppose I should really be calling "word of mouse"). See something cool? Cut and paste it into email and tell all 20 friends on your mailing list.
Did the Blair Witch producers cheat? Of course not. There's no such thing as cheating when it comes to marketing. All marketing is cheating. If it weren't, it wouldn't be marketing. Is that cynical? Maybe so, but what can I say? I'm an American who watches a lot of TV and reads lots of newspapers, magazines, billboards, and junk mail. A little cynicism is an absolute necessity if I'm to get through the daily barrage of messages we all find ourselves buried under!