Two Suspended Over Phony Blurbs

LOS ANGELES — Sony Pictures suspended two advertising executives for allowing movie ads to feature accolades from a critic who didn’t exist.

The executives, who weren’t identified, were suspended 30 days without pay, according to Jeff Blake, president of distribution of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, a division of Sony Corp. (SNE). “The company is sanctioning … one [executive] for his actions and the other for actions that occurred within the department he supervises,” he added.

Sony also said it plans to monitor its publicity and advertising departments more carefully to ensure the accuracy of critics’ quotes.

An executive fabricated quotes from “David Manning of The Ridgefield Press” for use in print ads for several movies, including “Vertical Limit” and “Hollow Man.” In advertisements for the new Rob Schneider farce “The Animal,” the fictional Manning said, “The producing team of ‘Big Daddy’ has delivered another winner!” The phony critic also declared Heath Ledger of the action-comedy “A Knight’s Tale” as “this year’s hottest new star!”

The bogus blurbs were spotted last week by Newsweek reporter John Horn, who challenged the reviewer’s authenticity. Some of the movies that used the quotes had already gotten several positive reviews from real critics. Sony spokeswoman Susan Tick characterized the deception as “a case of incredibly bad judgment.”

At The Ridgefield Press, a small weekly newspaper in Connecticut, officials said they didn’t realize the paper’s name had appeared in the ads. The newspaper ran its own story about the fake critic this week, reporting that “David Manning” is a real person, just not a real critic.

Ridgefield’s Sue Manning, who held the town’s top office of first selectman from 1987 to 1997, said her son’s name was used in the ads. “It is David,” she told the newspaper, adding that a friend who worked for Sony asked, “Could he use his name?” Her son wasn’t quoted by the newspaper.

The flap triggered a probe by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who said he may fine any company that places misleading ads in the state. He added, “We give this practice two thumbs down.”

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.