Taking your lumps in the court of public opinion may not be such a bad thing. But this holds true only if your business is producing cultural products such as movies, record albums or books, a new set of studies concludes. Otherwise, the researchers found, there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Opinion on the effects of negative publicity is whipsawed between two competing camps. On the one hand, there’s the publicists' old maxim that all publicity is good publicity. And on the other, there’s the more cautionary counsel of marketing and business experts who warn about the perils of being discredited in the public eye.

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School, and colleagues Alan Sorensen and Scott Rasmussen at Stanford University wanted to test these two poles of conventional PR wisdom.  Their surprising findings, “Negative Publicity: When Negative is Positive,” were published this month in the journal Marketing Science.

In the three studies they conducted to measure the impact of negative publicity on movies, music albums and books, they found that the critical factor was public awareness of the product or brand.

The pilot study conducted by the authors involved the recent career of Michael Jackson and the sales of his recordings. The authors found his sales increased even when he received negative media attention.

“In months when musician Michael Jackson received more decidedly negative media attention, e.g., child molestation charges or dangling his kid over a balcony, he sold more albums,” they wrote in the study.

What worked for the King of Pop also held true for actors' bad acting (in public) and the consequent interest in their films, according to a second study.  The marketing professors looked at negative information about Russell Crowe,  such as his throwing a telephone at a hotel employee, and interest in his films. 

Reading negative publicity about Crowe made him seem more interesting, the study found. That increased interest in him, which led to higher rankings of movies in which he starred.

The researchers also conducted an analysis of book reviews' effects on book sales.

“An analysis of New York Times reviews and book sales bolsters our suggestion that negative publicity can increase sales,” the authors wrote.  “Being reviewed in the Times increased a book’s sales, even in some instances where a reviewer clearly panned the book. The analyses further corroborate our predictions regarding when negative publicity will have positive versus negative effects. A negative review hurt sales of books by well-established authors, but helped sales of books by relatively unknown authors.”

The results, they wrote, were consistent with their predictions that the effects of negative publicity depend in part of existing-product awareness and accessibility.


The authors found that conventional wisdom is wrong: Any publicity is not good publicity. But they did show that negative publicity can sometimes be positive; it all depends on existing-product awareness.

“Negative publicity helped products that consumers should have been less informed about, but hurt products which should have already had broader awareness in the population,” the authors concluded.

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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com.  Follow him on twitter @nedbsmith .