“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
As PR professionals, we’ve all heard the expression many times before. But where does it come from? Those infamous words were allegedly uttered by P.T. Barnum, a legendary showman and circus director.
Although it’s difficult to verify that it was P.T. Barnum who should be credited, it’s interesting to learn a bit more about the controversial legend — and better understand why the saying persists to this day.
“There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”
Phineas Taylor Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”
Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum was a 19th-century American showman, entrepreneur, and politician known for his larger-than-life personality and uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination. Born 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum rose to prominence in the entertainment world by founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Barnum pioneered the art of press agentry, employing sensationalism and publicity stunts to generate interest and draw crowds to his shows. His innovative marketing techniques and relentless pursuit of the extraordinary laid the groundwork for many modern public relations strategies.
“Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810−1891) was a savvy publicity showman, one who impacted particular aspects of public relations and advertising, primarily event planning, event promotion and true publicity/media coverage. Ahead of others in his time, he actually understood the importance of media coverage (he started New York’s first illustrated newspaper in 1853) and believed ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity,’ a popular phrase many times attributed to Barnum himself.”
— Ashley Foster, APR 1The End of a Publicity Era: How Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Founder Affected Marketing and Public Relations
Although some critics have labelled Barnum as a purveyor of hoaxes and deception, his enduring legacy as a visionary showman and master of spectacle continues to captivate audiences and inspire generations of entertainers and entrepreneurs.
Is Bad Publicity Actually … Good?
Not all publicity is good publicity — of course.
But it’s complicated, too. Someone’s bad publicity is often good for someone else, and vice versa. Bad publicity for your competitor could mean less business for them and more for you.
There are also conversion theory effects. Suppose a controversial music artist gets bad publicity for provocative stage behaviours. In that case, it might result in angered parents, resulting in teenagers queueing for hours to see the show.
Then, there’s the amplification hypothesis:
The harder you attack someone verbally, the more you convince them of their belief, not yours. This, of course, goes for attacks via publicity as well.
However, P.T. Barnum likely referred to another psychological aspect of bad publicity (which isn’t often discussed in public relations or elsewhere). Sometimes, from a business perspective, it’s better to be infamous than entirely unknown.
“People want to be loved; failing that admired; failing that feared; failing that hated and despised. They want to evoke some sort of sentiment. The soul shudders before oblivion and seeks connection at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author
If a circus attracts bad publicity, plenty of people will still be curious to learn what all the fuss is about. If they’re going to dislike something, why not get some “scandalous” first-hand gossip themselves first? For the circus, it beats being unknown and getting zero tickets sold.
Learnings from the “Prince of Humbugs”
P.T. Barnum, often hailed as the “Prince of Humbugs,” played a critical role in developing the modern circus. However, his life and career extended beyond the circus tent and provided numerous lessons pertinent to the business landscape.
The following are some of the most significant learnings from Barnum, viewed through the lens of contemporary management and leadership practices:
Though drawn from a markedly different era and industry, these learnings from P.T. Barnum remain surprisingly applicable to modern businesses.
No such thing as bad publicity? Well, it’s complicated. But as for generating “bad publicity” on purpose, I’d suggest leaving any such advanced (and highly volatile!) PR strategies to professionals.
PR Resource: The Conversion Theory
The Conversion Theory: The Misrepresented Minority
The disproportional power of minorities is known as the conversion theory.
How does it work?
The social cost of holding a different view than the majority is high. This increased cost explains why minorities often hold their opinions more firmly. It takes determination to go against the norm. 2Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209 – 239. New York: Academic Press.
In contrast, many majority members don’t hold their opinions so firmly. They might belong to the majority for no other reason than that everyone else seems to be. 3Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357 – 388.
“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
According to conversion theory, while majorities often claim normative social influence, minorities strive for ethical high ground.
Given the power of normative social influence, minorities must stick together in tight-knit groups that can verbalise the same message repeatedly.
PR Resource: The Amplification Hypothesis
The Amplification Hypothesis
It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them.
The phenomenon is known as the amplification hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.
“Across experiments, it is demonstrated that increasing attitude certainty strengthens attitudes (e.g., increases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are univalent but weakens attitudes (e.g., decreases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are ambivalent. These results are consistent with the amplification hypothesis.“
Source: A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis 4Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue reading
How does the amplification hypothesis work?
In a threatening situation or emergency, we resort to the primal (fastest) part of the brain and survival instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 5Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
Establishing common ground and exhibiting empathy demonstrates a genuine understanding of their perspective, fostering trust and openness to your ideas. Conversely, if your objective is to deflect persuasive attempts, a strategic mismatch of attitudes can serve as a powerful countermeasure.
To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.
To put off a persuader, mismatch their attitudes. When they are logical, be emotional, and vice versa.
|The End of a Publicity Era: How Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Founder Affected Marketing and Public Relations|
|Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209 – 239. New York: Academic Press.|
|Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357 – 388.|
|Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810 – 825. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013192|
|Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.|
|See also conversion theory.|
|Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.|
|See also cognitive dissonance.|