Your moral outrage doesn't do anything to stop brands from making money
“There's no such thing as bad publicity.”
It’s a saying uttered so often many of us take it for granted. After all, the 11-syllable aphorism has been used since the early 20th century — and the longer a saying is around, the truer it seems. But is it? Is there really no such thing as bad publicity?
A few months ago, Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg — the most popular YouTuber ever (so far) — got himself into a bit of trouble after using Fiverr to make a crude joke. The Wall Street Journal didn’t miss the opportunity to cover the event, and wrote a scathing piece about it before tattletaling to Disney, letting the company know it's employing a hate-mongerer.
Agreeing with the sentiment or not is irrelevant. The point is PewDiePie lost that saccharine Disney money, looking to print it in perpetuity with the hopeful tears of fanboys. He lost the job, but did the incident really hurt his bottom line?
Despite the media shitshow that broke out the nails and two-by-fours for PewDiePie, the YouTube star never took a hit to his subscriber count; more than 56 million people are still subbed (if PewDiePie’s subscribers formed a country, they would be the 25th most populated nation in the world). The controversy even galvanized support. Some who never bothered to watch PewDiePie before clicked subscribe just to defend him, despite the cries of the moral guardians.
So we can say the bad publicity derailed PewDiePie, at least as far as his monthly income is concerned and where it’s coming from. But it hasn’t killed his credibility or turned his public against him. PewDiePie still monetizes his videos; he’s still lining his bank account.
And it seems if bad publicity is to mean anything, it ought to disgrace somebody, make them less able to continue doing whatever it is they’re doing. After all, money isn’t everything, but if you’re so ashamed by the public you can’t survive (e.g. lose your job) then that seems appropriate as an example of when bad publicity hurts.
But a YouTube star is a celebrity, someone labeled an “influencer” because followers choke down whatever he or she says. And as a country obsessed with it, we treat our celebrities with special care. Yet what happens when an ordinary person gets snagged by a swirl of bad press?
Back in December 2013, Justine Sacco nonchalantly boarded her flight to South Africa. She was tired. As the PR Chief for IAC, she had been hopping across the planet from London to Germany and back again.
To pass the time, she amused herself by tweeting: “Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”
Followed by: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Sure, the jokes wouldn’t land in most social circles, but her follower count read “170.” She must have reasoned that no one (or very few) would read her remarks. But on the Internet, it only takes one single person to take an interest before going viral.
By the time her plane landed, Sacco was an international pariah.
The New York Times captured the general sense of the responses in a 2015 article:
"In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and
“How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and
“I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”
And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.”
The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and
“Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and
“We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired."
Twitter assembled a pyre and giddily set to tasking burning Sacco alive. Major media outlets chimed in. They condemned her as a racist cro-magnon, hired the best forensic interns to comb her history for more incriminating messages, and put her on the front of their clickbait blog roll for weeks. IAC promptly fired her to distance itself from the maelstrom as quickly as possible, condemning the former employee in the process.
By the time her plane landed, Sacco was an international pariah.
Was Sacco actually a heartless racist-Nazi? No. It doesn’t seem so. She made stupid jokes that society as a whole doesn’t find funny — unless it’s within the safe space of a comedy club — and suffered enormous consequences. Even though she worked in PR, she forgot that every one of us is our own PR firm, and every remark we make online is an indelible stain on our character. Our expressions haunt us. Best watch what you say.
So, yes, bad PR can ruin a person — as an individual. If you’re not wearing the right name tag, you have to watch what you say and do. There is always somebody willing to blow up your mistakes to reap in that sweet advertising revenue while catering to the pitchfork mob ever hungry to devour the outcast. Sacco lost her job, her credibility, and the life she knew.
Bad publicity clearly hurts the non-celebrity individual.
But what about multi-billion dollar companies? The organizations that have PR departments, where every now and then documents spontaneously erupt into flames as filing cabinets are flung out windows to distract people from their mistakes. Businesses constantly tiptoe around the public to keep the goodwill. Still, it takes a scandal of monumental proportions to thrash a business into the dirt.
In April 2010, 4.9 million barrels of oil coated the Gulf of Mexico in what is commonly referred to as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The consequences are mammoth and too extensive to report in one small space (though it's good to point out that 11 people were killed, 150 injured, countless wildlife choked on slick grease, and there was immeasurable damage to the environment and the tourism industry along the Gulf).
Who gets the blame? BP oil. Which company is still one of the world’s 10 largest companies by revenue? BP Oil.
Despite a condemning Halloween costume, despite people boycotting BP fuel stations, despite losing 55 percent shareholder value immediately following the incident (from $59.48 a share to $27 a share between April and June), BP reaped $5.3 billion in profit only one year after the spill.
Was the company hurt by the disaster? Sure, in the short term. A 2015 settlement requires BP to pay $18.7 billion to the U.S. government in the largest corporate settlement in history — up until that time.
But, so what?
BP is the classic “too big to fail” scheme. Even though protests erupted around some gas stations (which are privately owned and not hurting BP anyway), and the brand was constantly berated in daily conversations, that didn’t stop people from fueling up their cars. Most were more concerned about the rising price of summer gas than the sordid history of the company that delivers the fuel.
BP reaped $5.3 billion in profit only one year after the spill.
Skip forward a couple years, and when people think of Deepwater Horizon, their first thought is the Mark Wahlberg film.
It was hurt in the short term. That financial sting, 24/7 media coverage, the necessity of saying, “We’re sorry,” and the criminal prosecution of BP employees amounted to a time better left forgotten. Yet the Q4 2016 finance report gives a subtle hint of BP’s attitude towards the 2010 spill:
“In 2017 cash payments related to the spill are expected to be lower than in 2016, around $4.5-5.5 billion, before falling sharply to around $2 billion in 2018 and to a little over $1 billion a year from 2019.”
See that, in the coming years we’ll have to spend less on making up for the oil spill. Just a write-off at this point. Controversy hurts companies in the short term, but BP has established their resilience and embedded itself as a part of a minor historical moment, one that now exists as a whisper, as something to remember whenever CNN gets around to making a show about the 2010s.
BP’s disaster has been replaced by innumerable other catastrophes. We can’t possibly keep track of them all. It’s become let BP thrive, while the Gulf of Mexico will never be the same again. We’ll only speak about Deepwater Horizon, briefly, when the next oil spill occurs — and only as a means of comparison.
Of course there are exceptions to the bad publicity rule: Bill Cosby won’t have a comeback, ever, and Lehman Brothers (a former global financial services firm deeply involved in the housing bubble) was pronounced dead before its heart stopped beating — key word “exceptions.”
But what is truly exceptional is the everyday person getting swept up in a bad publicity maelstrom and surviving. It’s easy for an individual’s life to be ruined if mistakes go viral; no one wants to know the names of the people they execute, that only humanizes them.
Perhaps the best example is saved for last. And this is the one that really solidifies “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” so long as everyone knows who you are.
Against an onslaught of daily reports condemning the man, Donald Trump won the presidency and continues to face negative press everyday — a quick glance at Google’s news feed proves this.
One can’t believe negative press exists when a particular person arguably receives more bad publicity than anyone else in history, and is still the president of the United States.