Negative Publicity Raises Awareness, For Better and For Worse

The old adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been proven false. Kind of.

Research from a marketing professor at the Wharton School, Jonah Berger, along with a couple of his Stanford University colleagues posed the questions “Can negative publicity actually have a positive effect? And if so, when?”

The New York Times took a closer look (the article about the research was originally published in Marketing Science) and the findings suggest that negative publicity can raise awareness, which can actually help in specific circumstances.

For example, the article points out that even a bad review of a book can positively impact sales if the book is written by an unknown author. However, in the case of an established author, the bad review can have a negative impact.

Or if people can recall hearing something about a brand but can’t remember exactly what, the vague name recognition can drive activity. The article questions whether we’ll see a negative impact from the recent Gap logo debacle since the situation didn’t refer directly to Gap merchandise but rather to the brand.

In an e-mail, PRSA spokesperson Keith Trivitt takes issue with the story for perpetuating negative stereotypes about the function of PR and publicists. The story doesn’t go so far to say that companies or brands should manufacture negative publicity. (Although it quotes the authors of the study who “suggest, for instance, that the makers of a small independent film ‘might want to allow, or even fan the flames of, negative publicity.'”) Rather, it indicates that if the stars align the right way, there’s a chance that bad PR can have a plus side.

Also, it speaks to the fact that there’s so much information out there, marketers need to be proactive about making sure there are positive associations with brands and companies, even when crisis situations arise. No sense gambling on how long or short consumer memory is.

Update: The New York Times has published a letter about this story, submitted by the PRSA.