Exclusive: The art of the publicity hoax

The initial buzz leading up to M. Night Shyamalan's 3-hour biography on the Sci Fi network was good. The director of science fiction noir pictures, The Sixth Sense and Signs, was about to release his newest picture, The Village.

The initial buzz leading up to M. Night Shyamalan's 3-hour biography on the Sci Fi network was good. The director of science fiction noir pictures, The Sixth Sense and Signs, was about to release his newest picture, The Village.

Since Shyamalan is young - just 33 - and scored such a big hit on his first feature, he had earned an auteur and iconoclastic reputation. So when the Sci Fi network claimed to have its hands on the covert history of the director, a tale so spooky that the director supposedly cut off communication with the documentarians, fans everywhere were approaching the unveiling with fervor.

To many viewers' dismay, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan was a hoax. A tide of angry articles soon followed. The angry media response wasn't surprising, considering journalists were many of those who believed the veracity of the network's claims. After uncovering the hoax, the Associated Press recalled how they were duped.

"A network spokesman told the AP that Sci Fi was confident it had legal grounds to air the film and would probably never work with Shyamalan again," the story says.

A large part of the problem with Shyamalan's hoax revolved around two themes: one, journalists were taken for a ride; and two, the "documentary" was positioned as straight truth. While some have speculated that the teaser sent to journalists gave some furtive clues that it was fake, this has not abated the negative stream of publicity.

Neither parent company NBC Universal nor the Sci Fi network returned calls for comments. The movie publicity hoax has, as its progenitor, 1999's The Blair Witch Project. The movie, which was positioned as the footage from three documentarians who disappeared in haunted woods in Maryland, elicited a buzz because of the vagueness around whether it was an actual documentary or not. It was not.

Blair Witch
co-director Daniel Myrick says that the filmmakers did not shield the press from the truth of Blair Witch when they were doing interviews. "Duping the press is not the best strategy in the long run because then you've blown your credibility," Myrick says. "You have to have respect for the press because they're the ones that promote what we do."

Myrick says that he couldn't recall one journalist who thought the movie was real. "We did so many interviews and were pretty enthusiastic about how we [not the fictional characters] made the movie," he adds.

Among those who fell for the Shyamalan "documentary" was Karen Hershenson, arts and entertainment editor for the Contra Costa Times, who subsequently wrote an column titled, "Shame on Sci Fi and Shyamalan for hoax" Being a fan of most of Shyamalan's films, Hershenson watched the program with her son and husband. The family was "stunned" by the "documentary," and she spent the rest of the evening fielding supernatural questions from her son. Her colleague informed her about the hoax the next day.

She wrote in her column, "The whole episode has really upset me for some reason. I hate to be duped. As a journalist, I like to think that I negotiate the media with a healthy dollop of cynicism; that I'm not easily taken."

Hershenson told that she was a little surprised by her reaction. "Part of it was that I felt like an idiot; the ruse was so complete," she says.

"It's okay to have fun with the public in an entertainment, but they went out of their way to fool journalists," says Sal Cataldi, CEO of Cataldi PR. "I do a lot of television publicity, and there are a lot of people who I wouldn't mess with."

When asked if the Sci Fi network might have been guilty of insular thinking because it's part of a media organization, Cataldi says, "That's where consultants come in."

He added: "An approach like this backfires because it makes the journalists appear as if they're not doing their job."

"Why would anyone wanting to promote something take a risk like that?" asks Joey Skaggs, a media hoaxer who uses his events to make political statements or draw attention to the dupability of the media.

Cataldi, a fan of Skaggs', says, "There's a playfulness about [Skaggs' routines]."

In his venerable career, Skaggs has pretended to run a prostitution ring for dogs, a cemetery theme park, and, most recently, held a faux pro-Bush parade. In the course of his career, he's duped a veritable who's who of the national media.

He says that most people who dupe the public never want them to find out. Those who eventually let them in on the secret are bound to catch some backlash. Risqu? techniques have always been an arrow in the public relations professional's quiver. But, in recent times, publicity stunts have grated the public's collective patience.

Despite denials from Janet Jackson's camp, many viewers still believe some handler of some sorts thought exposing Jackson's breast would be a nice marketing move.

NBC Universal moved quickly to minimize the damage.

 "This marketing strategy is not consistent with our policy at NBC," Rebecca Marks, NBC entertainment spokeswoman, told the AP. "Looking as an outsider, the NBC family maybe has gotten a little more freewheeling, maybe they got a little too much so," Cataldi says. "When you take it too far, people feel a bit too hoodwinked."

With the Blair Witch Project, there wasn't a need to inform the public that the movie was fiction, because involved parties never fully asserted that the events of the movie happened in real life. Myrick says the compelling aspect for his film stemmed from people questioning whether it was real or not. "We tried to walk a line between not revealing anything that was overtly perceived as fictional, but our intent wasn't to pull a hoax," Myrick says. "You didn't have to dig very deep to know it was fake." Hershenson, who saw the Blair Witch Project at Sundance, says, "There was a veil of mystery of whether it was real or not. It was new, shaky ground."

With the Shyamalan biography, she felt it was definitely real because of its seamless nature. The backlash from the Shyamalan was bound to be great because the public gained nothing gained from the duplicity, Skaggs says.
"The result can be pissing people off like [Shyamalan] did," Skaggs says. "They're probably spinning their way out of it." He added: "I don't believe in the adage 'As long as you get your name in print.'" Myrick joked that a lot of

Hollywood movies perpetrated hoaxes where the trailer is something more exciting or appealing than the actual movie. But the end result won't be too troubling for the filmmaker or the network. While critics have widely panned the film, it grossed over $50 million in its opening weekend, the second strongest debut for Shyamalan.

"[Shyamalan and the Sci Fi network] will suffer the slings and arrows for a bit from their media contacts, but they'll rebound," Cataldi says. "There will always be new shows to promote."

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