“The News of The World sale is looking close to 4m. So much for a sales boycott.”
So said Rebekah Brooks, its ex-editor, making a good point: bad press hadn’t (at that time) dented sales.
Likewise, 2013 was the year when Google ignored its own slogan and turned evil, without a drop in traffic.
And when Lululemon’s founder Chip Wilson claimed some of his customers’ thighs were too fat, the company’s sales growth remained buoyant.
So what does science say – does bad press matter?
The answer lies in the structure of the human brain.
The Triune Brain Theory (MacLean, 1990) suggests that different regions of the brain have evolved over time. The innermost “reptilian” layer is responsible for homeostasis; around that developed the “mammalian” brain associated with emotion and learning; while the outer “human” layers are responsible for planning, reasoning and so on.
It is generally accepted (from the days of Freud) that there are two systems – the automatic old brain and the deliberative new brain.
Behavioural economist Colin Camerer wrote that “the human brain is like a monkey brain with a cortical ‘press secretary’ who is fluent at concocting explanations for behaviour, and privileges deliberative explanations over cruder ones” (Camerer et al., 2004, p561).
So in other words, the old brain is largely responsible for our judgement and decision-making, while the new brain post-rationalises this behaviour.
This was tested in an experiment where participants pressed a button to indicate when they had decided to perform a given action while an EEG helmet recorded the point at which the brain initiated it. The average time difference between intention and action was -300ms.
Meaning the brain initiates an action before we “decide” to act. What we mistakenly believe to be intention may in fact be post-hoc awareness.
Attitudes do not reliably predict behaviour. While bad press may influence consumers’ thoughts to a degree, these have little impact on actual sales.
For example, many people claim to be concerned about the environment and global warming yet they won’t switch to ethical consumption decisions.
Further, consumers tend to be one-second shoppers; in fact, consumers can make the best possible decision in just a third of a second (Milosavljevic et al., 2011).
For them, attitudes such as those formed after exposure to bad press are largely unimportant. Milosavljevic and colleagues (2012) provided eye-tracking evidence to suggest that visual saliency is more important for product choice than prior preference, especially under conditions of time pressure.
It seems, then, that bad publicity is not necessarily always bad; but can it be good?
Consider this. Public service announcements sometimes have the opposite effect to that intended – anti-alcohol ones, for instance, can actually increase alcohol consumption.
The principle at play here is mental availability.
A purchase decision is often influenced by how mentally striking the brand is. This is why Tropicana lost $27m in a month when they changed their packaging (Lee, Gao & Brown, 2010): shoppers had a particular image in their mind and couldn’t find it on the shelves. This, too, is why top-of-mind awareness is higher for orange soft drinks and chocolates (such as Fanta or Reece’s Pieces) in the run-up to Halloween, when orange decorations adorn stores (Berger & Fitzsimons, 2008).
Bad press can therefore increase the chance that a brand is noticed at the point of purchase.
The world of advertising gives us an excellent illustration.
HeadOn is a product users apply (directly) to the forehead to alleviate headaches. The brand had what is possibly one of the most annoying adverts in history. Yet, in the year the advert was released, sales were up by 234%.
We couldn’t talk about the most irritating adverts without the mention of everyone’s favourite tenor we love to hate Gio Compario. And yet, he’s had a remarkable effect on the growth of GoCompare.com.
Over 25 years ago, researchers Pechmann and Stewart (1988) conducted a meta-analysis looking at the effect of repetition on advertisement effectiveness, and discovered that “at even higher exposure levels, repetition maintains or reinforces brand sales despite the fact that attitudes towards the ad have begun to decline”.
So, it doesn’t matter what consumers think of a brand but whether they think of it.
In sum then, yes, bad press does matter – it’s good for brands!
There is one final caveat, however.
While the relationship between attitudes and behaviour is weak, that between emotions and behaviour is strong. Bad press which has an emotional effect – such as loss aversion in the case of Northern Rock’s bank run or disgust in the case of the processed meat sales dip after the horsemeat scandal – is likely to have a significant impact on sales.
So bad press can be accepted – or even embraced – as long as it doesn’t have a negative emotional influence.