In 2007, I was asked to play devil’s advocate during the final judging round of the Queensland leg of Business Icon and grill a number of young entrepreneurs about their recently devised plans to launch a fictional product (created for the competition).
For each contestant, I adopted the name and questioning style of a well-known news identity.
Starting as George Negus, I asked: “Your product has medicinal applications. How will you prevent the emergence of a black market, such as those I have seen too often in the war-ravaged South American countries of Chile and Paraguay?”
As Laurie Oakes, I asked, “The market is in decline and political sentiment is shifting away from subsidised pharmaceuticals. How do you intend to deal with this new, demanding economic climate and a possible change of government?”
For the final contestant, I adopted the name Kyle Sandilands and asked…
“What is your favourite colour?”
This unexpected line of inquiry prompted a sudden burst of guffaws from the crowd and flustered the poor final contestant to the extent that I may have cost her the competition. (Sorry!)
Why did I do this? Why place the controversial shock-jock in the same league as Negus and Oakes?
I knew that the mixed audience of parents and 18-25 contestants would recognise the name instantly and I’d score a cheap laugh.
I had exploited the fact that Sandilands is a master of his own publicity.
Any publicity is good publicity
This is a phrase that we’ve all heard from time to time.
My colleagues counselled me on its virtues last month when our decision to remove magazine subscriptions from our revenue model attracted mixed coverage, largely from competitive media (of course).
However, last week, Sandilands put this famous aphorism to the ultimate test and, in doing so, jeopardised his career.
If you’ve been ‘out to lunch’, beyond the seemingly limitless reach of Kyle and Jackie-O, here’s what happened.
On live radio, a 14 year-old girl was asked in a live lie detector test – in front of her mother – whether she had ever had sex. She started to cry, then blurted out: “I got raped when I was 12 years old.” Silence. Then this, from Sandilands: “Right … is that the only experience you’ve had?”
Naturally, listeners, parents and sponsors were appalled.
But it is this type of stunt that has given Sandilands his career, his infamy and the clout to demand sponsorship for his own wedding!
So, when is any publicity not good publicity?
The Comedic Set Up
Not since Norman Gunston graced our sets in the seventies have Australian publicity seekers been safe from the comedic set up.
More recent rabble-rousers, such as The Chaser, The Daily Show and Sasha Baron-Cohen (of Ali G, Borat and Bruno fame), have turned this uncommon publicity back-fire into a fine art.
It’s undeniably thrilling to watch an earnest company representative or naive celebrity walk head-first into the satirical clutches of a popular comedian.
It’s hard to imagine what the New York Times was thinking when it let The Daily Show into its offices for an afternoon. Or that the makers of ‘Pull My Finger’ didn’t anticipate a thorough lampooning over their stress-relieving iPhone application.
But the main problem with the comedic set up is that often, by the time the penny has dropped, it’s too late to do anything about it – other than embrace the situation with a suitable sense of irony and humour.
You’ll instantly recognise this type of publicity-seeker – celebrities who behave in seemingly insane ways in order to hold on to the media’s glare.
The risk, of course, is that person almost invariably dilutes his or her personal brand in the process.
Okay, I’ve already copped a 10 page thread of criticism from crazy MJ acolytes after publishing a piece on ‘personal brand building’ last month. (Search for ‘Michael Jackson is not dead’ using almost any search engine and this post will come up numero uno, unfortunately). So, I won’t harp on about marketing lessons that can be extracted from the life and times of the recently deceased King of Pop.
However, it is worth noting the MJ represents possibly the strongest argument that not all publicity is good publicity. And I’m not even referring to the child molestation allegations. I’m referring to the series of self-inflicted (and inflated) publicity stunts, from the purchase of freak-show remains to the use of oxygen sleeping chambers (in close, coincidental, vicinity to paparazzi), that carried him from sweet pop sensation to strange, sometimes frightening tabloid fodder.
It could be argued that Jacko’s antics bolstered interest in the singer’s music. But I’m probably not alone when I say that I haven’t left a record shop with one of his albums since 1987 (‘Bad’).
Any brand that seeks blanket coverage can also be accused of committing this marketing crime. If you’re a tennis fan, you’ll know what I’m talking about: sponsor messages repeated ad nauseum, every break, every end-change, every game, set and match.
By tournament’s conclusion some of us would be forgiven for resenting the credit card or telecommunications company that we initially felt quite positive about, before being blasted off our seats by the same advert on repeat.
Publicity for publicity’s sake is never good, particularly if it dilutes the brand characteristics that you have worked so hard to build.
The Morally-Dangerous Stunt
Let’s return to Sandilands.
His latest stunt was the last in a series of many that have defined his career. For that reason, you could call Sandilands a success. If fame was his goal, he has achieved it.
But until now, his actions have raised criticism but never prompted his suspension from radio or the loss of a television contract. This time he simply went too far and crossed that line between being morally ambiguous (offensive to many) to morally dangerous (beyond the mores of broad society).
Sandilands is not the first to cross that threshold. Nor will he be the last.
Mel Gibson made anti-semetic remarks in a drunken rage and, as a result, his career may never recover. On the other hand, Hugh Grant was arrested several years earlier illegally soliciting a call girl and, following some carefully selected film roles, his career has never been stronger.
Our own PM shortly before the last Federal election admitted to a foot-loose and fancy-free night on the town, concluding at a high-class strip club. (Or is that an oxymoron?) Some political pundits still believe the incident improved his political candidacy by humanising the squeeky clean ex-diplomat.
It seems that publicity shame or fame can sometimes simply be a matter of boundaries – that fine line between moral ambiguity and just plain wrong.
So, is there such a thing as bad publicity?
It seems to come in three forms and, most of the time, is apparently self-inflicted.
- Handle media offers with caution (unless they’re from Anthill, of course)
- Don’t dilute your brand by seeking publicity for publicity’s sake
- Maintain the moral high-ground (or risk entering dangerous territory)
Is Sandilands a man to be admired or despised?
From this journo and ex-PR man’s perspective, my unplanned poke at the shock-jock’s infantile interviewing style in late 2007 was the decider. Negus and Oakes he ain’t.
Sure, he is a master of his own publicity. And he’s certainly living it right now.