“The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.” — Oscar Wilde.

This quote, undoubtedly, is not true.

If there was ‘no such thing as bad publicity’, why are there a plethora of PR companies devoted to managing the reputation of their clients? Why did media reports of the largest off-shore oil spill in US history (Deepwater Horizon) cause BP’s share price to plummet by 55%?

The world is replete with examples of companies, celebrities, not-for-profits, politicians and governments that have been ruined by bad publicity.

Put yourself in the shoes of Richard Nixon — would he rather Watergate had been discovered and talked about … or unrevealed and not talked about?

We live in a digital era. An era where identity politics reigns in liberal circles, where offence is taken easily by those on both the left and right, and where vocal minorities on social media are able to bombard brands with complaints.

21st century firms are in constant fear of sowing the seeds of controversy that will lead to the reaping of a hurricane.

Unsurprisingly, then, Oscar Wilde’s maxim is often presented as completely out-of-date.


But the idea that bad publicity isn’t always… bad, shouldn’t be snorted at either.

Let’s take a look at some of the most famous bad publicity that have cropped up in recent years. Campaigns that fellow university students insist to me were unequivocal disasters.

1, Protein World — “Are you beach body ready.” It was named as Britain’s worse advertisement in 2015. London commuters, were entertained by fun phrases (such as “FUCK OFF”) scrawled over billboards.

You’d expect Protein World’s sales to have plummeted in the wake of this social backlash. You’d expect the small company that was set up less than 2 years before the ad campaign launch to be struggling.

And yet, Protein World’s made 1£ million in sales in just four days following the release of this advertising campaign. That is after having only spent £250,000 on the campaign itself.

It is interesting that the creator of this ad campaign (Richard Stavely) is now using the exact same tactic for the V24 Think Small campaign.

2. Pepsi — Kendall Jenner somehow defusing a protest with a can of Pepsi is another campaign that triggered social media outrage.

Justifiably so, the advertisement trivialised police brutality in the United States.

And yet, in the initial aftermath of the backlash — Pepsi’s stock actually increased markedly.

It was only at 1.20pm that Pepsi’s stock suddenly decreased. What happened? Pepsi publicly apologised and yanked the ad.

That seems odd. Stock increases whilst Pepsi is being accused of trivialisation; and after Pepsi apologises, attempting to atone for any offence caused, the stock value… decreases?

Moreover, it’s not even clear that the ad was a disastrous PR move. The Morning Consult survey found that 44% of people surveyed had a more favourable view of Pepsi after watching the ad. Only 25% of those surveyed has a less favourable view.

For Pepsi, it was a mistake. They had not intended to create this negative backlash.

The same, however, cannot be said for other controversial campaigns. Some marketing teams deliberately seek out controversy. That is, they try to trigger outrage from social-media active liberals. An excellent example of this would be Paddy Power.

Paddy Power released an ad that featured blind footballer players kicking balls aimlessly — one hit a cat.

Paddy power also released an ad that featured a hit-man shooting chavs with tranquilliser darts. It was banned after four days. Paddy Power mocked corruption in Italy with an advert that featured Jesus Christ ‘cleaning up’ football.

In fact, Paddy Power takes pride in their controversial campaigns. Controversy generates attention for their brand; Paddy Power has decided that ‘bad’ publicity isn’t just preferable to no publicity… it’s desirable.

But why does controversy sometimes sell and sometimes result in total failure?

Controversy makes people pay attention, but consumers then need to like what they see.

Crucially, who is the controversial ad appealing to? What is the brand’s target audience?

For Paddy Power, their audience is unique: it is more sport-loving and laddish. These kind of ads work for Paddy Power but wouldn’t work for brands with different audiences.

Controversy-seeking techniques are becoming more and more common-place, especially in the world of politics. I think the best example of this would be Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is a misogynist, yes. Donald Trump is xenophobic, yes. Donald Trump is pro white nationalism, yes. Donald Trump has terrible grammar, yes. Covfefe is not a word, yes.

It therefore follows for most of my fellow university students, and indeed much of the media, that Trump and those who market him are “fucking idiots.”

But take a look at the Trump campaign’s marketing strategy in 2016 & 2017. Like Paddy Power, he knows his audience: he knows aren’t pro identity-politics liberals who are likely to be outraged by his offensive comments. Instead, they are more likely to believe that ‘political correctness has gone mad.’

His offensive statements turn heads, and much of his target audience likes what they craned their necks to see.

Data from 2016

With obscene tweets, scandalous interview responses and bizarre statements, Trump has ensured that he was, is and will be hardly ever absent from the airwaves.

The whole world was, and still is, obsessed with Donald Trump.

Trump had a free platform to air his views. Ask yourself — could you name 5 policies that Donald Trump proposed during his electoral campaign. I suspect you can. But:

Can you name 5 policies espoused by Rubio, Bush, Kasich or Cruz?

Can you name 5 policies that Hillary Clinton proposed?

Hats off to you if you could answer both questions completely — but I confess that I can’t. And whilst I entirely disagree with the 5 Trump policies I could name, that is beside the point.

Plenty of others agreed.

It is not true that there is ‘no such thing as bad publicity.’ However, it is also untrue that bad publicity is always bad. Oscar Wilde’s maxim is still relevant today.

In fact, in an age where audiences are inundated with ads and marketers try desperately to get their clients noticed, it may be more relevant than ever.