Well, that’s not exactly the case, but it’s close – and it’s fascinating (at least to me).
In case you don’t recall, a website called houstonleader.com was created and full of all sorts of drivel. There were stories on Lady Gaga and her “leaked” ode to Muslims during the halftime show of Super Bowl LI in Houston. Donald Trump apparently provided PED-laced water to the Patriots, which is why they came back to miraculously defeat the Atlanta Falcons.
There also was a story about a bogus 30-year study that linked being a vegan to mental illness – the hook that snagged us in the upper lip.
Someone posted a link to that vegan story on our Facebook page, asked if we “knew about” the story, and then apparently took our Facebook link and shared it with as many people as possible.
What happened next was an onslaught of anger. People in continents across the globe called us – The Leader – horrible journalists for quoting from a study that didn’t exist and relying on a Ph.D. who, technically, has not yet been born.
Our office received calls from all over the country wondering why we would share such hideous information. Our Facebook page was filled with comments that either kept the story alive or questioned our competence.
Last week, when I hurriedly wrote about this “fake” website, I told readers that this was not us. We splashed my column everywhere possible – digital, print, social media. Incredibly, people commented on my column by suggesting maybe our vegan story wasn’t accurate.
Well no kidding, rutabaga. That’s exactly what I wrote, yet people still thought I was spreading information about a bogus scientific study.
My assumption was someone created this website to gain clicks. The more clicks they got, the more revenue they earned. And the more we talked about the fake site, the more publicity (pageviews) they received.
It turns out I wasn’t exactly accurate in my assumptions.
You’ve heard of 20th Century Fox, the behemoth movie studio that has distributed the likes of Star Wars, Avatar and that all-time classic, Porky’s. This is not some indie film company; it’s one of the biggest, baddest players in the game. They have a partner called Regency Enterprises, which produces many of the 20th Century Fox movies and TV shows.
Last Friday, Fox and Regency released a movie (I’m not even going to tell you the name because it would add to their publicity), and it turns out they created fake news sites in five cities across the country to solely promote this un-named movie.
I’ve made an interesting acquaintance in learning about the hijacking of The Leader name. There’s a website called BuzzFeed, which covers social and entertainment news, among other things. Somehow, BuzzFeed got hold of this story (not from me, because I don’t think they actually read The Leader in New York).
The journalists there, including one of their editors, Craig Silverman, started looking into this hoax, and what they discovered makes me really sad about the state of the marketing industry. Here’s what the story said:
“BuzzFeed News contacted Regency Enterprises, one of the film’s producers with the information connecting the [fake news] sites to the film. A spokesperson confirmed they are working with the fake sites and provided a statement.
‘”[Name of movie] is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker,’ it said. ‘As part of this campaign, a ‘fake’ wellness site was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news.’”
Let me make this simple: 20th Century Fox and Regency Enterprises paid someone to create fake news sites and link them to reputable news sites like ours at The Leader. They did this in New York, creating a site called the NY Morning Post, which is very similar to the New York Post. They also created sites in Indianapolis, Salt Lake City and Sacramento. Every story on these sites, in some form or fashion, promoted the new movie that was released last week.
As you might imagine, this has had me hot under the collar for the past week, and the financial aspect is the least of my concerns. Well, that’s not exactly true.
In 2016, 20th Century Fox grossed $27.3 billion in revenue. I don’t know how much they spend on marketing, but in this case, they paid a marketing firm to create a website that cashed in on our name. They had someone post a story to our Facebook page to look like the content came from us. They then paid someone a lot of money to distribute that post to who knows how many people, while also spending the cash to have houstonleader.com appear as the No. 3 ranked site on Google.
If you Google “Houston Leader,” we’re the first result, with our phone number, web address and street address for all the world to see. People automatically associated our company with their slimy marketing tactics.
In the meantime, we spent a week on the phone and answering emails from people who associated this filthy marketing ploy with our reputation.
The big issue here isn’t that a mega studio should pay us money to advertise. The issue is that one of the most iconic movie companies in the world believes it’s OK to pay a marketing firm to prey on a small media company like ours to create a viral story that disparages our name and damages our reputation.
And there’s an even bigger issue: If this continues, and large companies saddle on the backs of legitimate companies to try fancy forms of advertising, they’re going to destroy the goodwill folks like us have with our readers. Eventually, people will stop reading because they can’t trust us, by no fault of our own.
That problem is not new. Heck, it may be too late.