Is There A Such Thing As Bad Publicity?


P.T. BarnumThere’s an old saying, “there is no such thing as bad publicity", and some really believe it to be true. The maxim originated back in the early 19th century with businessman P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Others are a little more skeptical and wonder if there are really no circumstances under which publicity can be bad. The only way to know for sure is to look at some examples of bad publicity. 

SeaWorld Parks Takes A Hit

Imagine having your company featured on a program on CNN. It’s what businesses crave, right? Sounds appealing… then you learn the package is going to be negative about your company and its operations. A recent story, “7 companies Hurt By Bad Publicity: Negative Headlines Can Be Detrimental To The Bottom Line”, tells us how this happened to SeaWorld Parks.

“SeaWorld’s public image has been tarnished since CNN Films “Blackfish” documentary brought to light less-than-ideal habitats for its famous Orca whales.”

“The Orlando-based company has defended its Orca environments, but admitted last week that the film and related “adverse publicity” could harm its brands, reputation and results.”

If you are unfamiliar with the documentary, CNN Films describes it as, “Blackfish traces a 39-year history of killer whales in captivity leading up to the 2010 killing of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by the 12,000-pound orca, Tilikum, a whale previously associated with the death of two other people. Blackfish chillingly shows that this incident of violence is hardly an isolated one, along the way exploring the extraordinary nature of orcas, thought to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom.”

After the airing, CNN Money reported the company stock dropped 33 percent. According to a corporate press release, SeaWorld now plans to enhance and expand its Orca habitats, start a fund matching program of $10 million to protect oceans, killer whales and sea mammals in their natural environments. It’s called the Blue World Project.

Due to the program, audiences were captivated and extreme backlash ensued against SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. Certainly not good for business. 

Starbucks van failThe Unfortunate Placement 

Sometimes, something that seems minor can cause bad publicity, mockery and costs to your company bottom line to fix.  Two years ago, The Huffington Post article ‘Starbucks Van FAIL: Sliding Door Sends The Wrong Message’ is an excellent illustration. Starbucks did not consider the placement of its lettering on several vans that it used to deliver products. When the van doors opened, the letters often lined up to spell out the word ‘sucks’. All that was necessary was taking the letter ‘S’ from the beginning of the word and the ‘ucks’ from the send of the word and there you had it. 

Total Disregard 

An example of really bad publicity is the United States tobacco companies’ famous study claiming the industry saved the government health care money. They stated their products killed people earlier in life which helped lower the costs of treating those individuals later. Theoretically true, it’s not good for publicity. Back in 1998, the states sued the industry and won. According to a press release on, in 2013 after President Obama issued a tobacco tax increase, tobacco enterprises responded with the following attacks:

  1. Tobacco tax increases aren't a reliable source of future revenue.
  2. Cigarette tax increases are regressive and hurt poor people.
  3. Tobacco tax increases will promote smuggling.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Executive Director Susan M. Liss stated, “Tobacco companies resort to these deceptive arguments to hide their real reason for opposing a tobacco tax increase: They know it is one of the most effective ways to reduce smoking, especially among kids. Study after study has proven this to be the case. Tobacco companies even admit it in their own internal documents. Here's what Philip Morris said in one document: " is clear that price has a pronounced effect on smoking prevalence of teenagers, and that the goals of reducing teenage smoking and balancing the budget would both be served by increasing the Federal excise tax on cigarettes."

Fifteen years later, tobacco will pay big “estimated at $246 billion over the first 25 years”, however reports show some states, like my own, barely use the funds for prevention.  

Nevada smoking trends

These three small examples show there are forms of publicity which are not good. It’s important to accurately weigh the costs and benefits of doing any kind of marketing before taking that risk. Contact us for more information on getting the right kind of publicity for your business.  


Tags: publicity