I wrote about this insidious new trend on the Radio Times website a while back, but today’s papers have added to my evidence file. Let’s reiterate first. In March, two ads for new films appeared within a couple of pages of each other in the London Evening Standard, and together, they almost formed a trend. The first was for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, already a hit, but understandably being advertised off the back of positive reviews, to ensure continued box office. These were some of the quotes on the ad:
“British film at its best … whoever you are, go and see this film!”
“The must-see film of the year!”
“A truly wonderful experience.”
Such notices are the sort that money cannot buy. The ad, which ran over half a page, was a colourful collage of such positive, gushing quotes. It was a very effective plug. However, if you looked more closely, you discovered that the reviews were not from critics, but members of the public:
Sheena, 55, Pudsey, West Yorkshire
Richard, 52, London
Anne, 51, Glasgow
At which point, I thought: “Genius.” Just like those TV ads where satisfied customers coming out of cinemas are buttonholed for their reaction. Not only was the ad saying: Forget the critics – this is what YOU thought of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it gave the ages of the cinemagoers polled, not just underling the film’s older demographic but also subtly expanding upon it, so as not to limit its reach. The marketing department was shrewd enough to include people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. (I’m in my 40s and I enjoyed the film, although I would urge anyone over 50 to go, as it is squarely aimed at them.)
A few pages later, I saw an advert for Project X, a much less marketable comedy, in that it has no famous people in it (a deliberate policy, as it’s presented as a home video), but came from “the producers of The Hangover” – always a bit of a desperate connection. It, too, had some rave reviews:
“Absolutely brilliant! I didn’t stop laughing. A game-changing film.”
“One of the best movies ever, everyone should watch it.”
It also had some high star ratings from magazines like Nuts, Heat and Loaded (spotting a trend?), but the quotes quoted above were from … Twitter. The first was posted by @larawadey, who I looked up. She seems to exist – although in March her avatar was of a sunbathing woman whose head is cropped off, usually the mark of a pornbot (it’s now a picture of a lady boxing, with a head on) – she’s in London and as of the last time I looked she has 157 followers, but no other biographical information is forthcoming. Who is she? One assumes she saw Project X and was independently moved to rave about it.
The other quote was Tweeted by @TheBigQas – a London band “using music to spread the message of Islam” – who today have 135 followers, which might have risen as a result of the ad in March. Their quote is nonetheless being used to “spread the message” of Project X. Why should I care what they think? Equally, why shouldn’t I care? And why should I care what Anthony Lane in the New Yorker thinks? (I could answer that but it would take too long.)
Two questions arise.
One: are ads in which the reviews and quotes come from members of the public poised to oust the once-regal film critics from their ivory towers? The internet is, after all, an egalitarian democracy – sometimes deafeningly so – where everybody’s opinion seems as important as everybody else’s, and none carries more weight than another.
Two: why should we trust these quotes?
For legal reasons, let it be known that I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reactions aren’t from real people; I’m certain they are! If I’d stood outside my local cinema after seeing it and harvested quotes from my fellow patrons, I’m sure I could have filled two adverts with raves. (Some critics were a bit sniffy, some not, but it is, at the end of the day, a people’s film.) However, I find the Twitter comments more worrying. Anybody could start an account on the social networking site, give themselves a stupid name, and write a great review of Project X, which could then be passed off as genuine. Who’s to know? It’s impossible to check.
Again, I’m sure the two quotes used by Project X are 100% independent and genuine. But it’s a technique that’s wide open to abuse.
Today, there’s an ad for the film Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, a quirky, feelgood, adult-aimed comedy whose professional reviews have been fine, but so-so, but whose marketing is wall-to-wall raves. Again, as well as repeating nice notices from Woman & Home and Easy Living, they have polled real moviegoers, presumably ones who’ve been to preview screenings, which are not uncommon. Here are some:
“An incredibly funny and sweet film I have no hesitation in recommending it to everyone”
“Delightfully charming and laugh out loud funny”
“I loved it as much as Marigold Hotel.”
And here are the names of the non-critics who assessed the film:
Anthony Sharpe, Bournemouth, 34
Penny Philpott, Southampton, 54
Susan Hockey, Norwich, 61
Again, the ages. Again, the towns. Assuming these are genuine, which we must, how clever to give this much information about them. We don’t just know how old the citizen critics are, we know where they live! And one of them has had the marketing nous to compare Yemen to Marigold Hotel.
Now, you have to believe me, I am not against this new methodology because it threatens my job, as I don’t think of myself as A Critic, I just write about films and sometimes review them. (I review more films on my blog than I do for magazines, and if I’m not being paid, I say I’m not a professional critic.) It’s democratic to ask “civilians” to review films, although in the case of Yemen, they can’t have paid to see it, and must have seen it at a special screening, which suggests a freebie. I guess this makes them even more like professional critics, who do not pay either. (I pay to see films at the cinema more than I attend screenings, so once again, I am less of a critic, more of a punter.)
I still find it a bit odd. What do others think? Do you, as punters, want other punters to review films, just as customers star-rate books on Amazon, or restaurants, holidays, electrical appliances etc. on other websites? Does the seasoned film critic have any place in this democratic world? Should the Guardian pay Peter Bradshaw to review films when it could just ask members of the public to do it for free?
Perhaps – fingers crossed! – this new, democratic form of advertising will, in fact, return film critics to their ivory towers, where they can continue dispensing their opinions from positions of privilege but with verifiable credentials. You may not agree with my views on a film, but at least I’m real, and you can check my CV. How are we to contextualise Penny Philpott, Southampton, 54?