Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reverse psychology

When can a negative be a positive in public relations?

When it's one of those delicious unscripted reverse psychology moments when somebody's slam or silence has the unintended opposite effect. These are the kinds of situations that when they fall out of the sky and into your lap, you've got to run with them, brothers and sisters.

When some local TV stations and the city of Philadelphia ban ads on air or in bus shelters for the forthcoming movie "Zack and Miri Make A Porno," we may be lucky enough to see reverse psychology in action this very weekend.

The basis of a reverse psychology move is that people want to see, buy and touch what they can't have. It's that basic human instinct you had when you were an infant when your mother told you not to put something into your mouth, and as soon as they turned the other way, bam, that thing was halfway down your esophagus!

In the 70's, there used to be movie ads proclaiming "Banned in 27 countries!" and that was enough incentive to line up in front of the ticket booth the next day. When some rap star freaks out "angrily" about tracks from their new album "leaking" on the Internet, you know fans will be scouring every bit torrent site to find those songs. If you think about it, wasn't it Lot's wife who turned to salt because she was specifically told not to look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Those same principles apply to public relations and it happened just the other day in a classic case described in a story recounted in the New York Times. What I especially love is its involvement with the infamous spokesperson cop-out of not commenting:

Larry Olmsted has been blacklisted by the Guinness Book of World Records. Who is Larry Olmsted and how can a man possibly earn such a fate?

The answer to both questions is that he is the author of “Getting Into Guinness: One Man’s Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World’s Most Famous Record Book” (Collins, Sept. 2008)...

Mr. Olmsted, 42, said that when he was finishing his book, he applied to Guinness to break three more records, hoping to attract more publicity.

Guinness World Records Ltd... did not cooperate with Mr. Olmsted on the book, denying requests for interviews and access to historical files.

“While Guinness World Records lawyers are investigating serious concerns regarding the content of your book and its unauthorized association with Guinness World Records, we will not be in a position to consider any record applications from you,” stated the fax as quoted in Mr. Olmsted’s book.

Teresa Brady, a spokeswoman for Collins, the publisher of Mr. Olmsted’s book, said her company’s lawyers had responded to Guinness saying there was in fact no legal violation of Guinness’s rights. They received no response, she said. Brian Reinert, a spokesman for Guinness, did not reply to requests for comment.


Did Guinness not see this coming from a thousand miles away? By faxing the note, they were just waving a red flag in front of the bull. Instead of the author going away sulking that he couldn't compete for a world record, he (or a clever representative) turned the rejection into a press opportunity, making Guinness look like thin-skinned divas! By not commenting, Guinness provided the veritable cherry-on-top-of-the-cake making them look guilty in the process.

I've had the pleasure of being given the gift of reverse psychology a few times over the years. My favorite was back in the mid-90's, when my then-client Redbook magazine did a cover interview with the interminable Kathy Lee Gifford, then the co-host of the ABC-TV morning show with Regis Philbin. In the article, the writer questioned her about exploiting her son Cody for selling new clothes lines with his name. As usual, she stuck her foot in her mouth by replying that it was okay to do it and the revenues would be admirable. Later in the article, her husband Frank Gifford complained on the record that his wife was taking this branding exploitation too far.

One week before the issue hit the newsstands, I messengered a few advance copies of the issue over to the "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee" TV show. The next day, Kathy Lee was visibly upset as the show opened, not far from being teary. Regis asked what was wrong and she proceeded to lay into the article and how unfair it was, how they got it wrong, Frank would never say that... and then she did Redbook the biggest favor of all -- she held it right up to the camera in full view and shouted: "Don't buy this magazine! Please don't buy it!"

Within minutes, my phones lit up from friends and Redbook staff who heard Kathy Lee's tirade. I called up VMS and ordered a few rush job tapes of the show sent to my office (this was WAY before the streaming video era). I took one and sent it over to Page Six's Richard Johnson, alerting him as to what just happened, and the next day, he had a big story about it.

Six weeks later, we found out that the Kathy Lee issue sold nearly 20% more copies on the newsstands than the year before, making it a very profitable call to arms. Thank you, Kathy Lee.

Sometimes, you don't have to do anything to let reverse psychology have its effect and the script writes itself. When my client Maxim was breaking all kinds of records and becoming a phenomenon from 1998 through 2001, the competing publishers would go on the record bashing it. The late GQ editor Art Cooper legendarily said Maxim was a magazine for men who "not only move their lips when they read, they drool when they read." The more and more they attacked Maxim, the more and more advertisers wanted to know why everybody was talking about it. Soon afterward, Maxim won Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year and landed atop Adweek's "Hot List" of hot magazines.

So know your enemies and maybe even welcome them because they can be your greatest benefactors.

1 comment:

Nate Long said...

Great post, Drew! My rock band experienced a similar situation a few years ago when fans of a "rival" band engaged in trash talking with fans of our band. The result? Both bands became the talk of the town! A local music scene online forum about the rivalry blew up and mere talks of playing a show together left the scene abuzz. How's that for PR Rock and Roll?