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Twitter War Has That Fake Feeling

I’m embarrassed to admit that I followed the Ashton Kutcher-CNN Twitter war. I’m even more ashamed that I didn’t smell the rat, despite spotting its tail early on. We know Kutcher’s schtick. He combines jock humor, unabashed promotion and giant smug hipness, infused with of-the-moment digital gadgetry. But he manages to bring just enough camaraderie, […]

I’m embarrassed to admit that I followed the Ashton Kutcher-CNN Twitter war. I’m even more ashamed that I didn’t smell the rat, despite spotting its tail early on.

We know Kutcher’s schtick. He combines jock humor, unabashed promotion and giant smug hipness, infused with of-the-moment digital gadgetry.

But he manages to bring just enough camaraderie, self-deprecation and a wacky worldview to make them palatable. Or at least more than anything Spencer Pratt might dream up. Kutcher’s the teenager who changes your car radio stations and leaves the toilet seat up, but occasionally offers hilarious one-liners.

Here’s what we know: Kutcher wakes up Monday, April 13, and discovers his 842,000 Twitter followers are only 50,000 less than those on CNN Breaking News, one of the network’s least-followed Twitter feeds. (Apparently, he doesn’t discover Britney Spears beats them both.)

So he’s inspired to post a YouTube video challenging Breaking News to race to 1 million.

And the random idea snowballs. Kutcher makes multiple Larry King appearances, and the network peppers its shows and website with features. A technical glitch in Twitter suddenly disables its “Unfollow” button. Kutcher appears randomly and rambling live on U-Stream. A thousand digital billboards start promoting the race. Twitter’s PR person teases that something big's coming. Rumors spread that Oprah’s on Twitter…and sure enough, by April 16, an empty screen is up and accumulating followers.

Finally, only hours after Kutcher trumps CNN at 2:13AM on Friday, April 17, Oprah opens her show with a segment announcing her entry into Twitterdom. Oprah.com conveniently has a fully-produced section already promoting the microblogging service. As just as she sends her premiere message to 73,000 followers, Kutcher makes an appearance on the show, too.

You believe this groundswell of activity was spontaneous?

Me neither.

The media did. The hundreds of outlets breathlessly covering every aspect portrayed it as the most amazing viral event of the year. A few smarter ones pulled back the curtain and questioned those billboards and the Unfollow problem.

Good for them. But let me state what’s now obvious: Most likely, this was a long-planned, carefully-executed corporate PR campaign by Twitter. With weeks of e-mail threads and negotiated amounts of promotion between everyone involved. Makes you wonder who’s footing the bill for the mosquito bed net donations committed to by Kutcher, CNN, Oprah and other celebrities who jumped on board as part of the challenge.

My "aha!" moment came with an early Kutcher tweet making an offhand reference to a Friday “Oprah” appearance. And I thought, “Huh? Where’d she come from?” Then it all made sense.

With a 20-year career in entertainment PR, I can’t complain about publicity stunts. I’ve got a nice portfolio of ones that probably caught your attention. They’re fun, usually harmless and can have more impact than paid ads or editorial coverage. But the days of inventing “Miss Haberdashery” trophies for unknown starlets are long gone. The public knows about paid endorsements and sponsors, which means smart stunts have to let them in on the joke, even if just a little.

This one didn’t.

So who won and lost?

CNN was a winner. The vanilla network desperate for a cool BFF scored one, if briefly. Larry King got more opportunity to blithely mangle digital media terms (I live for those moments). And its Breaking News Twitter, one of its most valuable promotional tools to drive news-seeking audiences to the entire network, got awareness and maybe sampling too.

Oprah won. The talk show is many things, but spontaneous isn’t one of them. The opportunity to fully produce a show segment and web pages while making it look spur-of-the-moment gains her fat-free brownie points.

Twitter? Hard to say since the service is confronting bigger issues, such as whether it can grow beyond serving as a digital version of staring at celebrities in restaurants.

The biggest loser is Kutcher. Love him or loathe him, he’s always been masterful at avoiding the “sellout” label. This time, he jumped the shark. And here’s how we know. Only hours after “Oprah” aired, Spencer Pratt exclusively told Us Weekly that he’s challenging Kutcher to a new Twitter race.

Maybe this time, they’ll wear the sponsors' logos.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.