Everyone said that Miley Cyrus’ performance a week and a half ago was terrible.  Distasteful, crass, and a potential career ruiner. But could it be the best thing that ever happened to her?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last couple weeks, you’ve probably heard about the outcry against singer Miley Cyrus.  A week and a half ago, the former Disney child star got on stage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, stripped down to a skin-colored bikini, and twerked on co-star Robin Thicke.  Complete with a foam finger, crotch grabbing, and a host of other lewd gestures, it was quite possibly the most outlandish dance performance ever on television.

In the days that followed, the country was awash with anti-Miley sentiment. People called the performance a “trainwreck,” described Miley as “messed-up,” and threatened to boycott MTV. Many said Miley made a terrible decision and that the display would end her career.

But might it actually have the exact opposite effect?  Might her performance, while distasteful, be the best career move she’s ever made?

As I discuss in Contagious, research on negative publicity suggests it just might. 

Recently, a few colleagues and I examined how negative publicity impacts sales.  Sometimes it’s hard to say whether attention is negative or not, so we picked a situation that was unambiguously negative: Michael Jackson’s run-ins with the law.

Pop star Michael Jackson released many #1 hits over his career, but he also had fairly frequent legal troubles. Child abuse investigations, financial mismanagement, even dangling his newborn baby over a balcony.  How did the negative attention he received affect his album sales?

You might expect sales would go down.  After all, how would being accused of child abuse make people want to buy MJ’s albums?

But interestingly, sales went up. The more negative attention Jackson received in the media, the more albums he sold.

So is any publicity good publicity?

Well, not quite.  We’ve all heard that there is no such thing as bad press. But that’s not exactly right. My colleagues and I also looked at how New York Times book reviews affected book sales and found a more nuanced relationship.

Sure enough, positive reviews increased sales.  But the effect of negative reviews was more complex.  For well-known authors (e.g., Stephen King or John Grisham), negative reviews decreased sales, but for unknown authors, or people releasing their first book, negative reviews actually increased sales.  By a whopping 45%.

Our research found that whether negative publicity (or word of mouth) helps or hurts sales is driven by the psychology of attention.  Purchase depends not only on whether people like something, but also whether they are triggered to think about it.  Consider the last time you picked a restaurant or chose a movie to watch on Saturday night.  If something doesn’t come to mind, there’s no way you’re going to pick it.

So negative publicity can help in the same way positive publicity can: By making a product or idea more top-of-mind.  Negative attention to Michael Jackson reminds consumers of all the great music he put out.  And while a negative New York Times review might say a book is terrible, it also gives that book a lot more attention than it would have received otherwise. People don’t always remember what they heard about a product or idea, but the mere fact that it is top-of-mind is enough to boost consideration. For little known products (i.e., books by unknown authors), or things that might not be top-of-mind currently (e.g., MJ’s or Miley Cyrus’ music), the boost in attention is enough to boost sales.

Miley’s lewd routine might have gotten her negative press, but they also put her back in the limelight in the way few other things could.  Her performance quickly became the most tweeted event ever, with over 360,000 tweets a minute.  She moved from one of a zillion pop-stars competing for attention to the it-girl of the moment. She moved from something not many people were thinking about, to something almost everyone was thinking (and talking) about.

Negative publicity might just have saved her career.


Jonah Berger is a Marketing professor at the Wharton School.  Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or order his New York Times bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On


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