James Franco, Instagram, and Viral Marketing

After having avoided scandals for most of his career, James Franco has finally gotten his first taste of public disgrace. On April 3rd 2014, it was discovered that Franco had used Instagram to try to hook up with a seventeen-year-old fan named Lucy Corde after meeting her outside a Broadway show in New York. That sounds like a cut-and-dried celebrity scandal, but it came to light that Franco had released a trailer for his new movie Palo Alto on the exact same day — a drama in which he plays an older man who seduces a teenager. Given Franco’s interest in unusual kinds of performance art and his obsessive dedication to his roles, the possibility arose that it was all an elaborate piece of viral marketing.

On the surface, everything about it appears fairly legitimate. The quickly deleted tweets, the sheepish apology on TV, it’s just like all the other celebrity social media disasters we’ve seen. After all, Franco would hardly be the first or the last celebrity to get busted propositioning a younger fan or to use dreadfully poor judgment in his use of social media and technology.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to dismiss the perfect timing with the trailer release for Palo Alto. He has a considerable investment in the film, since he stars in it and wrote the short stories upon which it was based. Since it’s a relatively unknown film, this could be the publicity it needs to succeed. Furthermore, the fact that he has yet to make any comment on the authenticity of the scandal despite weeks of media speculation that it was all a hoax is suspicious in itself. Aside from an appearance on the Live! With Kelly and Michael talk show where he gave a vaguely worded apology, his only comment about the issue has been a bizarre tweet that read “I HOPE PARENTS KEEP THEIR TEENS AWAY FROM ME. Thank you.”

If this all was an elaborate ruse, it would be one of the cleverest viral marketing campaigns of recent years. At least when it comes to the film industry, viral marketing has reached an impasse. It’s a vastly overused marketing strategy to slap together a viral marketing campaign for all the big films, with everything from Prometheus to next month’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 receiving their own intricate publicity stunts to mixed results. The mass media stopped caring a long time ago, and the majority of the people who take an interest in these viral campaigns are uber-fans who would buy tickets anyway. Even if he sullied his own reputation in the process, Franco got his name (and his movie) in the center of a whirlwind of discussion and media attention.

Putting the brilliance of the idea aside, this also raises the question of how ethical a publicity stunt like this could be. Although Franco wouldn’t be doing anything illegal by having a relationship with a seventeen year old (the age of consent in New York is seventeen), the ethics of such a relationship are debatable at best. Instead of contributing in any meaningful way to that discussion, this would be more along the lines of a shallow grab for attention.

Even if Palo Alto turns out to be a sincere look at the consequences of an older man having a relationship with a high-school student, it’s still rather sad if Franco would concoct a hoax like this just to push a few more tickets for his movie. Granted, that’s a tiny bit better than the alternative of this entire scandal being an unlikely coincidence and James Franco legitimately being a creep who preys on high school girls.

Illustration by Danielle Burch.

Illustration by Danielle Burch.

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