Bad publicity can drive sales


Receiving bad publicity has always been a double-edged sword for companies.  The old maxim, that there is no such thing as bad publicity, is tempered by a variety of academic studies that demonstrate that getting damaging news hampers sales. New research published in the Harvard Business Review takes a more nuanced position on this age-old question and suggests that for some products in certain industries, negative news can trigger a sales lift.

Professors Jonah Berger (Wharton), Alan Sorenson and Scott Rasmusson (both from Stanford Graduate School of Business) analyzed the sales patterns of 250 fictional books reviewed in the New York Times between 2001 and 2003.  The researchers compared sales patterns before and after receiving a review from a critic.

As expected, good feedback increased all books sales from 32 to 52%.    Books by established authors that received negatives reviews all saw their sales, not surprisingly, fall 15% on average. Interestingly, unknown authors who received bad reviews saw their sales spike 45% on average.    The sales increases occurred even when the review was cutting.  In one case, a book with an adverse critique like, “the characters do not have personalities so much as particular niches in the stratosphere” saw its sales increase by over 400%.  The elapsed time following a bad review was shown to have an important impact.  Bad reviews initially hurt all books, but the negative sales effect diminished quicker for unknown authors.

These findings have many real-world counterparts.  According to the authors, a $60-a-bottle Tuscan wine experienced a 5% sales lift after a popular on-line reviewer likened its smell to “stinky socks.” Shake Weight, a vibrating dumbbell widely panned in the media (“The most ludicrous fitness gadget of all time?” said one newspaper) racked up $50M in sales.  Why did these poor reviews lead to a sales boost?

With a relatively unknown product, the value of increased awareness due to bad publicity significantly outweighs the ill effects of the evaluation.   Moreover, the impact of the negative review will quickly taper off leaving higher product awareness and little memory of the bad assessment.

Our learnings from working with crisis PR teams suggest that marketers regularly over-estimate the negative impact of bad publicity on their target audience.  Given the frantic life of the typical individual and the level of media “noise” in today’s society, most people do not have the attention span or inclination to pay close attention to the details or context of most negative publicity.  All they tend to remember is the product name – which the authors have shown has a positive business effect.

These findings have important implications for personal brands (say for an entertainer or athlete) and companies, especially those that are content or experiential-based like books, movies, video games, theme parks, music and theatre.

  1. Don’t be so quick to squash negative publicity for a new, obscure or undifferentiated product;
  2. When faced with bad publicity, pursue damage control for well-established brands such as consumer electronics, cars, video games, software or apparel that depend heavily on pre-launch marketing programs and expert reviews;
  3. Consider undertaking controversial public relations tactics to increase the awareness of new products or brands that are slated to be re-launched.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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