Some people think a film distribution company has gone too far in an effort to distinguish its product.
Lions Gate Films, distributor for the movie “Godsend,” which opened Friday, launched a Web site that purported to be for a clinic where humans could be cloned. The fictitious clinic, the Godsend Institute, is featured in the film, which stars Robert De Niro as a doctor who clones a dead child for a couple, played by Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
The slick Web site for the Godsend Institute offers the tag line, “Using Life to Create Life.”
“We believe those with the power to grant or restore life have an obligation to our community and our world to share that power,” reads the site. This cyber-front for the fake clinic has sections about the cloning process, institute news, testimonials, links for learning more, and even a bio of its founder, Dr. Richard Wells (the part played by De Niro).
The site features photos of Wells, which are actually pictures of De Niro. However, the site’s photos are so small or manipulated that one must really know it’s De Niro in order to identify him as such.
“I do not subscribe to the standard definition of fate,” reads a quote by Wells on the site, “because it implies that we are powerless. Rather, I believe that we make our own fate. I’m in the fate business.”
The site talks about somatic cell nuclear transfer, which it says is the same process that generated famed Dolly the sheep, and it even takes a dig at the real-life Raelian movement and its associated Clonaid center, which claimed to have cloned a human. Its links section features links to actual Web sites and news stories about cloning research.
One of the “testimonials” reads:
“Our son’s name was Michael and when he died he was five years old. I was heartbroken of course, but my wife was absolutely devastated. She had been told that she was unable to have children and when Michael was born, she had taken it as a sign from God. When he died, my wife’s faith died with him. Then we heard about Dr. Wells and Godsend. It’s been three years since he gave Michael back to us and all I can say is that if there is a God, his name is Dr. Richard Wells.”
The Web site even lists an e-mail and phone number for contacting the Godsend Institute. An e-mail comes back as undeliverable, and the phone number delivers a message from the institute about its office hours, as well as an opportunity to leave a message for Dr. Wells.
As the site gave the impression that the clinic was real, several online petitions popped up, calling the fertility clinic an abomination. Then, as word got around that the site was a marketing strategy, petitions were distributed to lambaste Lions Gate for using such a tactic.
People thought the hoax—which relied on a professional-looking site coupled with a lack of information about the tie-in movie—went too far and was in poor taste.
Tom Ortenberg, president of film releasing at Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., told Reuters that several hundred people called the Godsend number each day, but that none of the callers seemed to think the institute was for real.
That was on Monday, April 26, and Reuters indicated that the Godsend Institute made no mention of the movie.
Now, however, the site does. It has a pop-up advertisement for the movie, as well as a button on the left side of the page. The button says it’s for “Do It Yourself Eligibility Testing,” but a click takes users to the movie’s official Web site. (And on the movie’s official site, a link to “the institute” takes visitors to the fake Godsend Institute site.)
Lions Gate did not return a phone call prior to press time regarding any changes it made to the site as a result of complaints.
Despite the furor, a Washington Post story said movie Web sites that blur reality and fiction are just a sign of the times. The story pointed out that “Laws of Attraction,” a romantic comedy also opening last weekend, uses a similar Web site gimmick.
Most cultural critics are pointing to the 1999 film phenomenon “The Blair Witch Project” as the initiator of using blurred reality as a marketing ploy. That independent film purported to be a documentary when, in fact, it was not.
Ortenberg of Lions Gate defended the strategy.
“For Internet-based movie marketing to be effective as users mature and as consumers get more savvy, the campaigns need to be more interactive and more interesting,” he told Reuters.
Lions Gate distributes smaller films and relies on novel approaches to compete with the bigger studios.
“I think it’s engaging that they put this up as a Web site without making clear that it’s a hoax,” Ronald Cole-Turner, professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, told Religion News Service.
“Web sites like that are coming and they really will be legitimate,” he said. “What’s it going to be like to be a grieving parent who clicks on those buttons? It puts us in their shoes.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.