Following on from my post on the unconscious nature of advertising, Duane Cunninghamasked whether it was fair to say that any exposure was good for a brand?  The old chestnut of “there’s no such thing as bad PR”.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, when it comes to consumer behaviour and the workings of the consumer mind, there isn’t a clear cut answer in my opinion.  Let me explain…

For the most part exposure to a brand works positively.  As I’ve mentioned previously, the unconscious (largely visual) detection of brands builds unconscious familiarity and this alone is preferable to nothing.  When the brand is encountered consciously, it feels slightly familiar, safer and therefore slightly preferable to a previously unencountered rival.

Often there will be some associations with that brand.  It might be a high street sign, in which case the associations are with the environment of that high street (perhaps upmarket, perhaps skanky!).  Even without contextual associations, a brand logo may be redolent of another business or may use colours that carry particular associations, which will also shape the feeling created.

It is perfectly possible that mildly bad publicity will, over time, serve as a positive.  If all that is remembered is that the brand has been encountered before then, at an unconscious level, that is beneficial.  Where the bad publicity fails to stir up an appropriate level of emotion in the person, they may well quickly recall the negative component.

On the other hand negative labels have been shown to be very strong influencers of opinion.  Where a customer hears a story about a brand that is compelling and emotionally engaging (in other words, when it’s a good story), and particularly if that story emanates from a friend, it will be a prime association with the brand.

This bad association works at an unconscious level like the advice from a parent not to eat the poisonous berries on a bush; you’ve never tried the berries, nor have you ever seen someone eat them and fall to the ground clutching their stomach, but you have a reflexive reaction that they feel unappealing, which you will recognise (and post-rationalise) as a reason not to want to eat them.

Another element to consider is how confirmation bias fits in with bad publicity.  If someone was very critical of your favourite musician you wouldn’t attach anywhere near the same weight to it as if the same criticism was levelled at a musician you didn’t like.  Similarly, criticism of a brand you love may be perceived as an unwarranted attack that causes you to want to support that brand, rather than reappraise or reject it.

The strength of affinity for the brand will also determine how long bad publicity has an impact.  If the brand is really liked and the competitors are relatively weak (in terms of brand strength and distribution) customers will gravitate back to the brand relatively quickly.  The bottled water brand Perrier had a major health scare several years ago, but managed to survive the experience. 

Another brand of water, Dasani, marketed by Coca Cola had an ill-judged launch, bad publicity about it being filtered tap water that was associated with a famous and hugely popular comedy series (where the characters also marketed tarted up tap water) and then experienced a similar health scare.  Without a credible brand to support it the product was pulled and never sold again.

Philip Graves

So, it’s certainly possible to have bad publicity that can damage your business.


  1. Rob Norrthrup

    I think bad publicity can kill a business. Bad word of mouth means people actively avoid you as opposed to being neutral. Unless the bad word of mouth is from someone you disagree with.

    For example, when the PETA (people eating tasty animals) lunatics argue against eating beef, it makes me want the product more. When a Hollywierd actor mouths off about something, it makes me likely to support the opposite cause.

    So, controversial publicity shouldn’t be confused with bad publicity.

    Seize the Day,

    Sales Expert For Small Business Owners
    Personal Asset Protection For Small Business Owners

  2. Pat Becker

    I don’t shop at Walmart. Their negative, to me, publicity about how they treat employees led me to a decision not to do business with them. That and their bully tactics when they want a piece of a town. I do understand that more recently they are doing their best to be a better employer, US as well as international; however what I have heard on the positive side in recent years still doesn’t get me back in their door.

    Internet Dollars for Business Owners

  3. Bereavement, Divorce, and Grief Counseling and Support, Henderson, Las Vegas, NV, Nevada

    Great mulling over of good and bad publicity. I’m with the others. I would rather AIM for GOOD PUBLICITY.

    Of course, I also WATCH and OBSERVE the PR MITIGATION after there is BAD PUBLICITY where they seek to shift SLIGHTLY the frame so that the emotions which then are REMEMBERED END positively. First AROUSAL (bad) then GOOD FEELINGS result = GOOD EFFECT overall.

    I love to make words work out visually with math symbols. 🙂 Cements it in my brain.

    Best regards,

    April Braswell

    Dating Quick Start Expert, Relationship Success Coach

    Divorce Support and Bereavement Counseling Outreach Workshop Henderson, NV, Nevada, Las Vegas

  4. Lisa McLellan

    I think it was Kevin who once said never bad mouth your competition because it is their name that sticks in peoples heads, not their actions. I saw this first hand. My old boss was a builder. He was meeting with a couple about some renovations that they were going to have done. The couple told him they’d talked to another builder “Smith Builders” but thought the price was outrageous and they heard a few complaints about them. Well, my boss confirmed the stories of bad complaints, gave them a better price, and they ended up going with Smith Builders!
    Lisa McLellan, Babysitting Services – Babysitters, Nannies, and Au-pairs

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