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When Bad Publicity is a Very Good Thing

You've heard the saying: There's no such thing as bad publicity. But is that true? Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are cases where terrible publicity can be a good thing. The movie Borat made relentless fun of Kazakhstan, but Hotels.com said that after the film was released, the number of requests it received for information about Kazakhstan went up 300 percent. Sales of Michael Jackson's music actually increased when he was in the news for legal troubles or for dangling his child over a balcony.

Yet negative reviews for a book or product on Amazon.com put a dent in sales, and negative movie reviews certainly hurt a film's box office receipts.

Jonah Berger, of Wharton, together with Alan T. Sorensen and Scott J. Rasmussen, both of Stanford, looked at the effect of publicity-positive and crummy-in two settings. They analyzed the sales of books that were featured in the New York Times Book Review, and also did experiments in which people read reviews of both real and fictitious books and were then asked how likely they'd be to buy them. The results? Well, there certainly is such a thing as bad publicity-but not for everyone.

  • Positive publicity does have a positive impact. Overall, a positive review in the New York Times Book Review boosted sales of that book by 32 to 52 percent. To calculate this, the researchers looked at the books four weeks' of sales history before the review and compared it to the four weeks after the review appeared.
  • If you're relatively unknown, there is no such thing as bad publicity. For unknown authors, a bad review actually increased book sales by 45 percent.
  • If you're more established, bad publicity is actually bad. For authors that were better-known, a bad review resulted in a 15 percent hit to sales. This is important, because it shows that the mere fact of being reviewed by the New York Times is not necessarily seen as an endorsement of a book's quality.
The researchers suggest that something called the sleeper effect might be at work here. The sleeper effect holds that, over time, people remain aware of a certain company or product that they've heard or seen mentioned, even though they forget the actual information associated with it. So in this case, a bad review of an unknown book at least raises awareness of the book. Eventually, people forget that the review was awful, but the book still seems familiar to them, and they're more likely to buy it than they are to buy a book that's completely new to them.

In the case of a more established author, the one positive effect of a bad review-that it can raise awareness-isn't of any value, since awareness is already high.

Have you or your company been the subject of negative publicity? What effect did it have?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.