The Mixed Blessing of Bad Publicity

Earlier this month, celebrity Alec Baldwin made headlines when he was taken off an American Airlines flight due to his refusal to turn off his iPad because he was in the middle of a “Words With Friends” game. Perhaps what was even more shocking than Baldwin’s relatively petty reason for not complying with the airline’s rules was the astounding amount of publicity the story received in the days and weeks following the incident. In fact, Zynga, the company behind the WWF application on Baldwin’s iPad, was reported to have gotten a boost from all of the publicity about the event that circulated the story.

As a consumer behavior researcher, I’ve often heard the saying “any press is good press.” While my good conscience often doubted this notion at first, I quickly became a believer. Just turn on MTV these days and you will see what I mean (if you haven’t already, that is). It seems as though people are fascinated with shows that are filled with a smorgasbord of bad publicity, including (but not limited to) shows like the Jersey Shore, The Real World, and Celebrity Rehab. Nowadays, it appears that bad publicity is even becoming a type of business strategy for companies, as more and more incidences of scandals leading to increases in sales are becoming the norm.

On a psychological level, researchers argue that the attention-grabbing power of bad publicity is so successful because it is exactly that. When some type of bad publicity incident–be it getting kicked off a plane or being unfaithful like Tiger Woods–is shown over and over again, the story (as well as the main characters) tend to stick with people. Thus, more exposure means more saliency, and the more saliency can mean more audience interest. Combine that with the fact that individuals hold a cognitive bias where they pay attention to negative information more than positive, and you have quite the recipe.

Yet with the increasing value and popularity being placed on bad publicity, are we sending younger, more impressionable individuals in our society the message that doing something outrageously bad is a positive thing? After all, these are the individuals for whom a successful online presence is a priority, and thus might think of any attention as good attention for themselves. Furthermore, how is the trend of bad publicity changing the very values adults attempt to instill upon these individuals at an earlier age?

As an instructor of marketing courses, I often wonder how to solve dilemma of trying to instill a sense of ethics and dignity in my students in the face of a culture that is close to valuing bad publicity. Given that it is becoming so prevalent, I’m often finding bad publicity a topic that is hard to ignore in the classroom. While my original stance on the matter was pure disapproval, I cannot help but think that my students’ perceptions are quite different. Nevertheless, I feel that it is an important issue to discuss to some extent, both in business courses and beyond. After all, these are the future leaders of the world we are educating here.

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