Wharton professor studies benefits of negative publicity

· November 17, 2010, 1:15 am   ·  Updated November 17, 2010, 12:00 am

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Plenty of misbehaving entertainers would like to believe that all publicity is good publicity, but unfortunately, this is not always the case.

There are instances, however, when bad publicity does equal good publicity. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School, found this to be the case in a recent study conducted alongside Stanford University professors Alan Sorensen and Scott Rasmussen.

The study focused on negative publicity in particular, and the cases in which it led to an increase of interest in a product.

One area in particular where this was the case was book sales. A study of 244 New York Times book reviews found that negative reviews only hurt established authors. For up-and-coming writers, all reviews led to an increase in sales, regardless of whether or not they were positive.

Berger believes this is true of movies, as well.

“For a blockbuster movie that most people know about already, negative publicity is not going to increase awareness and because of that, it’s not going to increase sales,” he said. “But for an indie movie, that’s a case where negative publicity might increase awareness among the population, and because of that, it might increase sales.”

Actors themselves were found to be more resilient to negative publicity. In fact, the study showed that actor Russell Crowe’s phone-throwing incident increased audience interest in his movies.

The reason for this, Berger explained, is that consumers see a separation between the actor and the cultural products he or she creates.

The same holds true for musicians. Berger specifically pointed to Michael Jackson and his findings that Jackson’s negative publicity actually increased sales of his CDs.

Jehoshua Eliashberg, a Wharton marketing professor who studies box office performance, agreed with Berger regarding Crowe, but is skeptical of the theory as it applies to situations like Mel Gibson’s.

“[Gibson’s] racism is much worse than throwing a telephone,” he said.

Recordings of Gibson’s racially charged rants leaked to the press this summer.

Though Berger believes that Gibson’s diatribes will hurt his career, he doesn’t think it dooms all his future films to failure. On the contrary, he predicted that Gibson’s presence might even help an independent film.

“If I’m a well-known product, negative publicity can hurt, so if I’m a producer or a studio or a brand, I want to be really careful about stamping out negative publicity,” he said. “If I’m an indie movie that’s not very popular, I might even want to encourage my actors to do things that may be seen as negative because it might help the movie in the long run.”

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