The day before Halloween in 1938, a rather young Orson Welles took to the radio airwaves and scared the living hell out of people. The broadcast was part of a re-enactment of the H.G. Wells book War of the Worlds, but innocent, unsuspecting listeners were duped into believing aliens had landed on Earth. This was during a time when America was ramping up for World War II in a post-depression economy.
Today, people tend to be a bit more savvy about the potential for hoaxes, particularly on social media, though people have even been fooled by the video of a monkey shooting at African soldiers who had taunted it that was a promotion for the new Planet of the Apes joint. Sometimes fakes can be pretty convincing, which is why a recent spate of hoaxes surrounding the latest installment in The Purge films have led to worries in cities across America and even investigations by police and the FBI.
Those include posts to Facebook regarding similar purge-like conditions predicted for, of all places, The Woodlands. Personally, the only thing I imagine residents there purging is the Olive Garden, but someone seems to think it was worth the threat and authorities have taken it seriously.
All these purge hoaxes allegedly began with a teenager in Louisville trying to prank people with a social media post about a real-life purge that was coming to the Kentucky city. Needless to say, the authorities were not thrilled. But similar hoaxes have popped up all over the country and even Canada, so much so that it leaves one to wonder if the makers of The Purge aren't behind it (they were named a runner-up for a Shorty Award for their social media campaigns on the first film). Even if they aren't, they must love the publicity.
It is amazing how creative viral marketing has become, much of it born from perhaps the greatest viral marketing campaign in history: The Blair Witch Project.
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If you don't know about War of the Worlds, you must certainly be familiar with Blair Witch. Shooting it on a microscopic budget with handheld cameras, the creators built an entire legend using a website, crafting a story that was as believable (at least if you think ghosts and witches and stuff are real) as it was terrifying. The film lived up to expectations and scared the living crap out of fans.
Since then, entire teams of viral marketing experts have generated millions in revenue around the work of under-the-radar promotion. From carefully crafted messages posted online to planted people at bars disguised as friendly strangers who encourage you to try some new brand of vodka because they like it, viral marketing has become big business and spawned calls of fraudulent advertising tactics from consumer groups.
With a film like The Purge combined with the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, it is not difficult to see how a hoax surrounding gangs of criminals roaming the streets looking to steal and murder might scare people who don't know better. But the very fact that it did coincide with Ferguson makes it particularly distasteful -- and why even a cynic like myself has a hard time believing the makers of the film were behind it, no matter how much revenue it might generate.
It also demonstrates just how quickly a really good -- albeit inappropriate -- idea can spread on social media and why being skeptical about what you see on Facebook and Twitter is always a good idea, particularly when it doesn't come from a trusted source.