This is how it happened - or at least how I became involved. Scrolling through Twitter yesterday, I noticed a message which expressed alarm at real zombies being at large in real Scotland. It was followed by this link: http://www.motherwelltimes.co.uk/news/zombie-outbreak-in-lanarkshire-1-3558737 - which I clicked.
As you can see, The Motherwell Times is indeed carrying a report to this effect. According to them, volunteers at a local medical research centre have experienced a violent adverse reaction to a prototype encephalitis treatment. As a result, they have broken out of the building to threaten the public and disrupt the traffic. The piece refers to these people as 'zombies' and invites anyone spotting one of them to call a hotline.
"Essentially, the editor has used an advertisement to deceive his readers."
Highly unlikely? Yes, that's what I thought. And I was right. A quick Google search revealed the research establishment named in the article doesn't exist, and no other media outlet was running the story. My first guess was a hack. I suspected someone had infiltrated the newspaper's site and inserted a spoof page. However, I then noticed the piece was linked from the site's homepage. That wouldn't exclude a hack, but did make it less of a possibility. So I canvassed further opinions from Twitter users, one of whom called the number (which I thought was brave, as it could easily have been a £1000-a-minute con). He told me the line belonged to a Scottish theme park - leading me to take another, more accurate guess. This was an advertisement.
It transpires the theme park is running a Hallowe'en movie festival and the article has been created to raise awareness of the event, and ultimately sell tickets. All very clever, you may suppose. Guerrilla marketing, viral advertising - that sort of thing, right? Well, possibly - but horribly flawed.
I should emphasise that I have no problem with a bit of advertising trickery. It can be tremendous fun and highly effective. I'm also very keen on horror movies, but there are genuine ethical problems here. My objections are twofold:
1. Any serious journalist would emphatically resist the idea of a fabricated story running in a publication's editorial section, as this piece does. It may appear amusing, but it undermines the entire ethos of news gathering and reporting.
2. To include research into encephalitis, a disease which kills 120,000 people annually, in a jocular hoax, strikes me as incredibly insensitive and in thoroughly bad taste.
Having spent most of my working life creating and writing advertisements, I'm never averse to strong, adventurous ideas; and this concept is certainly more innovative than a big old banner, flashing away on the masthead. But I'm also a journalist, which means I believe certain boundaries are essential in order to keep news stories credible and reliable.
Which is why I emailed the editor of the paper, asking whether he thought dressing an advertisement as a news story compromised his website, and whether he considered encephalitis to be a suitable basis for a joke. He replied that he didn't believe anyone would take the story seriously (why not?) and that any illness could be serious or fatal (not true).
I can only assume his standards are more flexible than my own.
If one imagines Alistair Stewart, cocking an eyebrow on ITV's evening bulletin, announcing that foreign forces had parked their tanks in Parliament Square, one might well be shocked and surprised. To find, a few hours later, this wasn't the case - and the whole item had been a hoax, designed to promote a new war movie, would be both astonishing and infuriating. What's more, a substantial quantity of trust would have been lost between the broadcaster and the viewer. Yet, that is exactly what the editor has done here. Essentially, he has used an advertisement to deceive his readers - while insulting the memory of those who have lost their lives to a pernicious illness.
So, I'm sorry Motherwell Times, but this just won't do. No matter how exciting it might be to break 'the rules', there must always be a demarcation between fact and fiction, or news and advertising. Otherwise the 'truth' becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold. And that makes zombies of us all.
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant