THE PUBLICIST: Shock-value seekers should heed PR failure of Janet stunt

That age-old premise, "There's no such thing as bad publicity" was put to a severe test in the now infamous Janet Jackson bare-breast incident during the Super Bowl halftime show. Obliterating all other news for nearly a week, the resultant fallout and national indignation seems to have done Jackson and co-culprit Justin Timberlake very little good. My quick poll of a few music industry publicists indicates the stunt will likely fail in its intended purpose of boosting sales of Jackson's upcoming album.

That age-old premise, "There's no such thing as bad publicity" was put to a severe test in the now infamous Janet Jackson bare-breast incident during the Super Bowl halftime show. Obliterating all other news for nearly a week, the resultant fallout and national indignation seems to have done Jackson and co-culprit Justin Timberlake very little good. My quick poll of a few music industry publicists indicates the stunt will likely fail in its intended purpose of boosting sales of Jackson's upcoming album.

It may have, however, thrust Janet, who had fallen way behind brother Michael, back in the ongoing Jackson family "freakstakes" race. (A bare breast before a worldwide TV audience of 600 million equals one car-top dance at an arraignment.) That the debacle happened on CBS was unfortunate, given that the Eye network's many publicity blunders continue to earn them the reputation as the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Perhaps they need a second eye to improve their aim of restoring the tarnished Tiffany's luster. A publicist at another major network told me, "CBS is in a bit of an awkward position, as this is the same network that recently aired a trashy lingerie special in prime time. They played a role in opening a 'Victoria's Box,' if you will." The surprising "nipple effect" reminds me of the famous Casablanca line, in which the lovably corrupt police chief exclaims, while about to be handed his sizable wad of roulette winnings, that he's "shocked" to discover gambling has been going on. C'mon, people. You haven't been seeing those trashy music videos or beer commercials? But Jerry Swerling, who runs USC's PR studies program, says it wasn't just offensive taste, but the blatant attempt at manipulation that triggered such an outrage - even among the MTV generation. "We discussed the incident in my class," Swerling told me. "I was surprised by the extent to which most students - predominately young people between 18 and 23 - were offended. They were appalled by such an obvious set-up designed to look like an accident." Swerling feels it could end up a "linchpin" moment, in which public tide turns against shock-value stunts. "Jackson's record sales will be a fascinating PR case study," he says. "If they don't meet expectations, it will send an important message to a lot of folks." Breast beware, flashers. The Janet episode proves that skin to win is sin when the family is tuned in.
  • Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer

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