It's a saying which has been repeated since the 19th century, supposedly coined by Phineas T Barnum: 'There’s no such thing as bad publicity'. The American showman and circus owner believed that people talking about you was always better than nobody talking about you.
It’s become a staple phrase associated with marketing and publicity, but is there any truth behind it?
After a few ill-fated major publicity campaigns recently, questions have been asked. Were these brands really making 'mistakes' or was the noise generated by this bad publicity the whole point in the first place?
Below are a few examples of publicity campaigns which have generated bad publicity, and the aftermath that followed. Were these just ill-judged blunders? Or did they achieve exactly what they set out to achieve?
In an effort to capitalise on the tensions between the Black Lives Matter movement and the police, Pepsi decided to recruit Kendall Jenner and have her solve the socio-political issues between the two groups by handing out a can of Pepsi to the riot police on duty.
Needless to say, people didn’t take too kindly to being told the serious issue of race and police violence could have been solved all along by sharing a soft drink with each other. Even the daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King had a few choice words about the advert.
Social media went berserk over the issue with Pepsi generating a massive 1.25 million mentions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram on the Wednesday (April 5) after the campaign launched, with the majority of mentions having a negative sentiment.
The advert was immediately dropped and the company issued an apology for 'missing the mark'. One imagines Kendall Jenner is not a cheap commodity to get involved in your brand so this can go down as a major loss in ad spend.
Any lasting damage to the brand's stock price was short lived however, with the market focusing more on acquisition talk from Kraft Heinz, rather than the disastrous ad campaign.
A mother and son reminisce about their late husband/father at McDonald's as the son learns his choice of McDonald's meal was also his father’s favourite.
Many parents felt this advert was completely tone deaf and insensitive to people going through the grieving process. Bereavement charities agreed and criticised McDonald's for exploiting the sentimentality of a dead parent in order to sell fast food.
More than 150 people complained to the advertising standards agency, forcing McDonald's to pull the ad and apologise for causing any upset. The fast food giant had been positioning themselves as a wholesome and friendly brand with their series of 'what we’re made of' ads - this image has been severely dented.
Whether or not these campaigns have a lasting effect on sales figures remains to be seen. However, at present they have had no lasting effect on the price of stock, so in terms of immediate impact the damage seems to have been limited to column inches rather than spreading into profit margins.
Pepsi stock has continued to rise since the Jenner ad.
There is a big difference between the perception of a company and the perception of that company’s stock. While it makes a good story to say that a company’s blunders are punished by investors in an act of immediate justice, that is - for the most part - not the case.
Of course, being slaughtered in the press definitely did not help either brand's image and in the case of Pepsi, airing an advert which failed so catastrophically when attempting to tackle a serious issue is sure to have some effect on market share with certain audiences.
As for the 'brand awareness' defence, this doesn’t really hold water for brands which are already household names. All signs point to these campaigns being major miscalculations from marketing executives rather than anything more complex.
So is the idea of negative PR a pointless exercise? For big brands maybe, but for smaller brands there might just be something in Phineas T Barnum’s words.
Alan Sorensen, economics professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, has argued that even negative PR can help boost small business sales through increased brand awareness alone, despite the sentiment.
"One reason is that, for lesser-known brands, negative perceptions fade more quickly in consumers’ minds than their general awareness of the product. With established brands, on the other hand, the whiff of bad publicity lingers longer."
Sounds positive - but just be careful, don’t follow the example of sunglasses retailer DecorMyEyes.
Owned by Vitaly Borker, the company took the mantra, 'there’s no such thing as bad publicity' and supercharged the tactic. He welcomed online complaints and replied with intimidating messages, causing users to post bad reviews of the site on consumer message boards, as well as eliciting numerous articles from many outlets condemning his practice.
Surprisingly, this tactic initially worked. The high number of links coming from this negative coverage caused DecorMyEyes to rank higher in organic search, and increased sales. This despite the negative results which usually followed the company’s website.
Unfortunately for Mr Borker, this success was short lived. He was arrested in December 2010 for a variety of offences including 'making interstate threats' and 'cyberstalking'.
In September 2012 he was sentenced to four years in federal prison and ordered to pay nearly $1,000,000 in fines and restitution. He has also since been re-arrested, in 2017, for similar charges.
Launching a publicity campaign with the purpose of generating negative PR is a very risky tactic, and as we’ve seen, can end in very serious consequences. In the short term, it can be an effective strategy if done delicately, but it really is a gamble as to whether this bad coverage eventually helps or hinders your brand indefinitely.
Our advice? It’s probably easier to do things properly and generate good coverage for the product or services you're providing. If you set out with the intention of doing something good and things still go askew, you come across clumsy rather than malicious, and if you’re a small business you may still feel a benefit from this mishap. Just don’t make a habit of it.
For major brands, while negative PR might not be disastrous stock market wise, it’s certainly not a viable strategy. Big business is dog-eat-dog, and you can be sure that when you make a mistake, there are ten other companies - at least - willing to capitalise and steal your customers away. Take note of publicity campaigns which tackle big issues correctly and note why they’ve been successful. It’s the intricate details which could stop you from creating the next Pepsi/Kendal Jenner ad, and developing a critically acclaimed commercial instead.
If you're looking for an inspiration, take a look at Heineken's effort below. They took a number of the biggest conversation points of our time and stuck people with opposing views in the same room with each other.
A simple concept executed brilliantly, and has gained the Dutch brand plaudits from consumers and critics alike.
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