PR Stunts: Fake Study Links Fox News to Low IQs

It was a headline destined to simultaneously inspire a dozen highfalutin op-eds and a million bitchy comments: Fox News Viewers Are the Dumbest. One problem, though: it was what we in the media world call “a bunch of BS.”

Here’s the funny thing: the “story” wasn’t some sort of stunt pulled by MSNBC or another one of Fox’s many ideological opponents in the so-called “lamestream media.”

No, this little bit of fakery came from the inside—its source, according to a Huffington Post follow-up, appears to be a longtime “PR guru” and dedicated Republican who wants his party of choice to loosen its ties to the Fox News brand in the interest of its future electoral fortunes. See, the purpose of the “study” wasn’t to call Republicans dumber than Democrats: it was to insinuate that conservative Americans who choose not to watch the Fox News Channel are smarter than those who do.

The key finding in this supposed study: conservatives who watch Fox News regularly have an average IQ of 80, 20 points lower than the average among conservatives who get their news from other sources or don’t watch TV news at all. Bloggers, of course, reduced this conclusion to “Watching Fox makes you dumb.”

A HuffPo reporter followed up with the “P. Nichols” responsible for this stunt, who confirmed a few facts that seem obvious in retrospect: There is no “Intelligence Institute”, there was no four-year study, no one actually had his or her IQ measured, etc.

Mr. “Nichols” claims that the whole project was dreamed up by members of a Republican Super PAC (political action group) in 2010 after they grew concerned that the influence of the ideologically rigid “Tea Party” movement would threaten the ability of Republicans to win nationwide elections. This same “Nichols” claims that “researchers” did actually hand-pick subjects for interview, but that the whole undertaking was “rigged from the start” so the super PAC could send its chosen message to the party at large: moderation, not ideological purity, is the key to future victories (the implication being that Republicans who want to win should shun Fox News).

While we can’t really blame the various media outlets who found themselves fooled by the PRWeb release, we have to wonder why no one questioned the validity of this quote: “Fox News’ content is presented at an elementary school level and plays directly into the fears of the less educated and less intelligent. We have never seen such a homogeneous group teetering so close to special needs levels.”

This whole story stinks, and even if it went down as reported we have a feeling it wouldn’t work: As any marketer knows, the best way to endear oneself to a demographic is most definitely not to insult one of that very demographic’s favorite brands.

Still an interesting little case study, though…and it contains some good news for PRWeb, because “Nichols” claims that he had to re-write his original release five times before it could pass through the service’s filters.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.