Twerking Her Way into the Spotlight: in Defense of Miley Cyrus | Publicity Stunt 101
Miley Cyrus caused quite a stir two weeks ago at the VMA’s with a well-timed publicity stunt wherein she twerked her way into mostly-negative headlines and articles containing any number of affronted adjectives that people use when a girl gets up on stage on live television and removes most of her clothing in order to twerk with a foam finger, a bunch of stuffed teddy bears and a striped Robin Thicke.
Now, I could jump on this bandwagon to add my own armchair critique of Miley’s performance (which, truthfully, is one of execution as opposed to content). But, based on the nearly 26,000 articles featuring Miley since the VMA’s, I think that horse has been beaten into submission. And, in any case, I’m actually here to give Miley Cyrus a big foam thumbs-up:
Miley Cyrus supercharged her career with a publicity stunt that did exactly what it was supposed to do.
Miley Cyrus, at 20, has found herself in the awkward position that so many Disney-made childhood stars before her have faced: her original audience is now in their late teens and 20’s, and they’re not any more interested in the squeaky-clean Hannah Montana of yesteryear than Miley is in continuing on with that persona.
Adult onset brand identity crisis is not a new conundrum for a childhood star. Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Bieber have all come to a point in their careers wherein they needed a major personal rebrand in order to stay relevant with a buying audience. And all of them on that list have done some version of what Miley Cyrus did, which is to say that an overtly sexualized dance performance at a live event is a pretty good way to let the world know that you’re not a little kid anymore. Heck, even Madonna had to up the ante, and she didn’t exactly start on the Disney channel: she went from “Like a Virgin” to “Like a Prayer” to the “Sex” book to, eventually, fondling Christina and making out with Britney onstage at the 2002 VMA’s.
Which is to say that Miley is taking a page from a tried-and-true playbook: start with the hair and the clothes, then shock the world with a publicity stunt that’ll get everyone talking. And that’s because it works.
And so, you know who isn’t complaining? Her management team.
Miley Cyrus is a person, yes. But Miley Cyrus is also a brand, and that is precisely the reason that she has an agent, a manager, and a host of other business professionals employed to manage her career. As she and her management team look to transform her into an adult star, they no doubt look at her overall media exposure. We took a look at news coverage of Miley for 2013, using our own media monitoring suite:Miley Cyrus went from an average of 313 news stories a day from January 1 through August 24th. Since the VMA’ on August 25th, she has been featured in an average of 1,619 stories per day, with a peak of 4,188 stories on August 29th.
Miley’s media exposure has increased 5X since the VMA’s. Not bad for 4 minutes with a foam finger and a bunch of dancing bears.
So, what’s next? Well, not so coincidentally, Miley Cyrus has a new video out from her soon-to-be released album, “Bangerz.” In “Wrecking Ball,” she loses the bustier and swings naked from, you know, a wrecking ball. And people are talking about it, a lot more than they would have been were she not top of mind for the past 2 weeks. Sure, she lost the “Vogue” cover – but people are talking about that, too, which is good for both parties (and may have been planned all along as part of this publicity stunt). She also gained a SNL spot, set to air just after her new album hits stores.
Jonah Berger, Wharton business school professor, did a deep dive into the positive effect that negative publicity can have on revenue. This makes some sort of sense: when you as a brand become top-of-mind for a widespread audience, simple sales conversion metrics apply. Awareness leads to purchase, and awareness is what Miley Cyrus managed with a publicity stunt that still has press talking 2 weeks later. This sort of tactic isn’t just for starlets, either: Kenneth Cole caused a stir this week when, in response to the conflict in Syria (which was 12 times less talked about than Miley Cyrus), he reminded us that boots on the ground are no good reason to forget about flats and pumps. Cole is outspoken about his political incorrectness being good business strategy, and this blogger can only guess whether or not he’ll team up with Miley for some sort of teddy bear peekaboo dance sandal collection.
But, shoes aside, Miley Cyrus wins the award for the best intentionally offensive publicity stunt this year. So all manner of clothing off to you, Miley Cyrus, for a publicity stunt that may have been your best career move yet.