Wednesday, September 11

Any Fool Can Do What Another Fool Has Done

Miley Cyrus
When Miley Cyrus finally started talking about her performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, she hit every publicity misnomer in existence. According to the pop star, she and Robin Thicke weren't making fools of themselves. They were "making history."

"Madonna's done it. Britney's done it," she said. "Every VMA performance, that's what you're looking for; you're wanting to make history."

She said she doesn't pay any attention to the negative comments either. No matter what anyone thinks, Cyrus says that this has played out so many times in pop music that it doesn't even matter. She's claims to be amused by anyone still taking about it. She said they've thought about it more than she ever did.

Of course, few people are talking about twerking anymore. Her Wrecking Ball video has out-buzzed all that as the pop star stripped down to nothing in order to break video viewership records. Never mind that just as many people are tuning in to see her naked as they are to see her sing, she must be a winner.

So is fashion designer Kenneth Cole. He didn't even have to strip down to boots in order to get attention. He only had to make a joke about boots. "'Boots on the ground' or not, let's not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers," wrote the fashion designer in response to the possibility of the United States taking military action in Syria. Count up all the retweets and raves. He must be a winner too.

The public's fascination with spectacle is as cyclical as it is tired.

Kenneth ColeAmerica isn't becoming a society of spectacle. It has always been a society of spectacle, with the only difference from one decade to the next being our mainstream appetite for it. The 1960s, 1920s, 1880s, 1840s, 1790s all had racy, raunchy, and tasteless elements. The whole world has been part of it too.

It happens so often that one would think we would grow tired of it. But then we all suffer some odd form of public amnesia, forgetting the existence of such things as history tends to tidy itself up when the pendulum swings toward a more buttoned-down decade.

Even when we do remember, we tend to confine our memories to the 1960s because people were really in it for political commentary as opposed to quick profits. And perhaps that alone is why the modern spectacle feels as empty as it is tasteless.

Whereas people like Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Ken Kesey made history, people like Cyrus, Cole, and Ariana Grande will become footnotes of the eventually forgotten. If you don't believe it, take a look at the twerk fail hoax video masterminded by Jimmy Kimmel.

His hoax caught 10 million views, proving that you neither have to be famous nor talented to make a similar impact. But honey badger don't care. Cyrus was happy to up the ante. She not only strips off her clothes for 30 million views but her integrity too. The video isn't much different than the time-honored streak, except most people this desperate for attention aren't attempting to rebrand themselves.

Miley Cyrus nudePublicity is easy. Reputation is hard. 

Those six words were all I offered up about the subject prior to writing this article. They say it all.

Sure, one can easily subscribe to the notion that negative publicity has a positive impact on sales. When you compare Michael Jackson and his run-ins with the law as Jonah Berger, Alan Sorensen, and Scott Rasmussen did in their 2010 research paper on negative publicity, Jackson's album sales went up.

The crux of the research is not new but it is interesting. It is underpinned by the notion that purchases are tied to the quality of the product and what any publicity triggers you to think about.

Negative publicity for Jackson made people think about his great music. Negative publicity preceded cookbook sales for chef Paula Deen. Negative publicity spurred sales of Mel Gibson's films. And yet, you have to ask yourself about the after-controversy market for new material. In other words, negative publicity might drive short-term sales but cost someone's reputational legacy in the process.

In fact, it might be more accurate to say that negative publicity creates an illusion of positive sales because research cannot quantify the lost sales of material that will never be created or a lost legacy. History holds a different reverence for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jackson.

But who cares? Some say millennials don't care.

According to some studies, the generation born between 1981-2000 places money, fame and image ahead of self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. And whether you believe it or not, Cyrus fits the short-term mindset as much as Cole is trying to reach them. They are less likely to ridicule the behavior of someone like Cyrus or Cole and more likely to praise it.

Earlier studies said pretty much the same. They don't care. And maybe they aren't alone. The phenomenon isn't confined to a single generation. Most people think that 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) is worth the reputational cost as long as they can capitalize on the short-term success.

CyrusThe Onion did a brilliant job in articulating this fact too. On the day after the Cyrus stunt started making waves, CNN didn't lead the news with world affairs, human achievement, or an attempt to be a positive force for change. The leading headline reinforced mainstream rubber necking.

The commentary is sharply satirical in the telling. The purported explanation from the managing editor of CNN is as simple as it gets. Although making Cyrus the top news story was admittedly a disservice, it ensured more web traffic than any bothersome news like chemical weapons in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt, or even the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

So no, it's not millennials who are guilty of placing the spotlight on one girl's narcissistic booty shaking. That honor belongs to the media serving its viewership. As long as they believe that popcorn means more advertising dollars than meat, then more generations will likely view the working world with disdain in favor of a few fleeting seconds of fame.

But so what? I don't personally care whether Cyrus' actions detract from her own talent. It's up to each of us to carve out our own path in this life. And if that includes selling out for temporary success, I hope it's worth it. Just don't pretend it's original or historic. It's not. History is littered with forgotten fools.

How about you? Do you subscribe to the notion that all publicity is good publicity or that 100,000 Twitter followers will somehow ensure your words will outlast the pyramids of Egypt? What do you think? And by that, I mean anything. There comments are yours. Let's talk.
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