“There is no such thing as bad publicity,” goes the old adage. This is usually taken to mean that, even in the midst of scandal, having your name or your brand’s name being talked about will generate revenue down the road, because your name will be on the forefront of people’s minds. At the very least, people might want to check out for themselves if the bad publicity was warranted – I’ve seen numerous variations of the theme “Come check out why that one person gave us a 1-star rating on Yelp!”
This, of course, is not usually true. Yes, it can be true for people – certainly the whole of the “villians” of the WWE are fueled by bad publicity. Other examples exist as well: Kanye West seems to thrive on it, and to a lesser extent does Charlie Sheen. And sometimes, what is bad publicity to someone is an endorsement to someone else; knowing that your enemies hate something might convince you to like it yourself. This effect certainly helps expand the fan bases of people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly. Not entirely, certainly, but there are those people that like them simply because Democrats hate them.
However, bad publicity certainly hurts companies. Chobani, the Greek yoguhrt company, has recently filed a lawsuit claiming that bad reporting by Alex Jones, coupled with a refusal to retract or clarify the stories, has led to boycotts of their products. (It may have also led to people buying it simply because Alex Jones was bad-mouthing it. See the last part of the above paragraph.) Toyota suffered in the aftermath of the “stuck accelerator” fiasco, resulting in a %20 decline in stock value, a %20 decline in sales, and a $2.1 billion settlement. People have been hurt by bad publicity, as well – certainly, we all have quite a different view of Bill Cosby now as compared to our view of him in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bad publicity is quite real. People who say, “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” are trying to find a silver lining in the middle of a bad situation.
At least, that is the common interpretation of the phrase. There is another.
It is possible to hear that phrase and interpret it to mean that if something is being publicized, then it must be good. There is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity. This is a weird interpretation, but it does exist. A person who has this interpretation would be someone who is unable to tell for themselves if something is “good” or “bad,” and must rely on other people to indirectly tell them. If people are talking about something, then it must be good. People, after all, don’t talk about bad things. If you recognize something, it must be an accomplishment. People don’t recognize bad things.
This weird interpretation is one that is seemingly held by our president.
Mr. Trump has, in the past week or so, made three odd statements that support this idea. First, he made the point that his appearance on a Sunday morning news show brought in the highest ratings for that show since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This may be true – although, in typical Trump-fashion, he seems to have overestimated the number of people watching him; he claimed 5.2 million, but estimates I have found were in the 4.8 million range. What is odd is his choice of benchmark: why would he choose the 9/11 attacks? Just because people are watching a news story doesn’t mean that it is a *good* news story; it just means that people want to be informed about the subject being discussed. By likening his appearance on the show to the 9/11 attacks in one regard, Mr. Trump opens up the possibility that it will be likened to it in other aspects, including the possibility that many people tuned in just to see what was going to happen. They didn’t want to, but felt that they should have as much information about a national crisis as they could get.
Similarly, Mr. Trump announced that his press secretary, Sean Spicer, had his full confidence and would not be fired despite many missteps (to be polite) by Mr. Spicer in his press briefings. The reason cited by Mr. Trump was that Mr. Spicer consistently got high ratings. Many people were tuning in to watch him.
High ratings does not equal high quality. Many people tune in to Mr. Spicer’s press briefings to see what the jokes on late night television would be based on, or to make some of their own. The 90’s television show MST3K demonstrated that this was an effect – people watched the movies presented not because the movies were of high quality (they weren’t), but because they wanted to laugh alongside the jokes being made.
The third odd occurrence happened when Mr. Trump said “Congratulations” to a recipient of a Purple Heart award. To receive a Purple Heart, one must be a military serviceman injured in the line of duty. This is not a situation where congratulations are appropriate – a “Thank You” is much more in line with custom. A Purple Heart is not something that one typically aspires to However, it seems that once again Mr. Trump is conflating recognition with achievement. To Mr. Trump, the act of receiving an award means that the recipient must have attained something and should be congratulated for it.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump claimed that Senator John McCain was not a hero because he had been captured, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” There is no recognition that I know of to recognize Prisoners of War; I wonder how Mr. Trump’s opinion of Senator McCain would change if there were such a recognition. It is clear, then, that Mr. Trump values achievement; publicity seems to be the only way he knows how to measure achievement. If you attract attention to yourself, it must mean you have done something good. However, it would be entirely better if Mr. Trump valued the content more highly than the ratings.