Just as Verizon Wireless announced Thursday launch of Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play handset in the US, the New Zealand branch of the big red carrier tweeted Monday that the entire shipment headed to that country had been stolen.

Regret to advise the Xperia Play launch will be delayed. Major security breach. The shipment of phones has been stolen.

Turned out that was just a clumsy marketing gimmick that had cleverly exploited the whole Sony-versus-hackers brouhaha in an effort to drum up publicity ahead of the Xperia Play launch in New Zealand. To make the whole thing appear realistic, the carrier even released security footage, allegedly from the Vodafone store, seen above. They were “investigating” the theft, per this tweet:

Our fraud team are investigating the stolen Xperia Play phones and have released footage of the break-in. Can you help?

Needless to say, it opened a can of whoop ass…

The lame hoax, as some have called it, was exposed when Verizon announced a “manhunt” to “find our stolen phones”, offering a reward (six Xperia Play phones plus a $5000 credit) to folks who agree to play a Facebook game. When a guy suggested that pushing a “failed marketing stunt” was lame, Verizon responded, “Who said it failed, you’re taking about it”. The whole thing fits the overly tongue-in-cheek Xperia Play campaign that began with a series of television commercials starring American actress, writer and comedian Kristen Schaal. Said adverts are bursting with foul language and are full of sexual innuendos.

The Xperia Play smartphone doubles as a handheld game console. It sports the physical PlayStation buttons meant to play select PlayStation One games released on Android Market through the PlayStation Suite initiative. The handset is available in the UK, Ireland, Spain and Canada and will be launching in the US on May 26, with pre-orders starting tomorrow.

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