When Do Scandals Sting?

It's the X factor. Scandals and bad publicity of any sort have evolved into one of lifestyle marketing's biggest mysteries.

NEW YORK — It’s the X factor.

Scandals and bad publicity of any sort have evolved into one of lifestyle marketing’s biggest mysteries. Depending on a number of variables, they can yield a positive impact or one that’s devastating — and in some cases, they’re simply neutral.

The scandal stakes are highest, of course, when events involving people’s health, wealth or safety are in play, making the likely effects, and appropriate responses, easier to anticipate. The examples are many in recent decades, including the problems and related publicity experienced by products from Tylenol to Perrier and, more recently, Ford S.U.V.s, Firestone tires, Enron, WorldCom and Martha Stewart. But, in the realm of marketing fashion, among other lifestyle products, the impact of scandals and bad pr and the way they’re managed are almost impossible to predict, sources said. Indeed, one observer compared a company’s response to such situations with a game of Russian roulette. "A brand could shoot itself through the head, or pull the trigger on an empty chamber," said Edie Weiner, long-term trend analyst at Manhattan-based Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc.

One thing is clear, marketing experts and business analysts agreed: There is, in fact, such a thing as bad publicity, contrary to traditional thinking, even though it’s a crap shoot as to how hard negative or controversial events will hit a fashion-lifestyle brand’s image, business, or stock price. In part, that’s because of complex forces at play, in the wake of numerous business scandals, last year’s terrorist attacks and the impeachment of President Clinton. Those developments have combined to make many more blasé about most varieties of bad publicity, observers noted. Plus, the proliferation of violence and sexual imagery in the media has raised people’s tolerance for over-the-top marketing ploys so high that it takes much more to offend them, let alone alter their tastes and consumption behavior.

Thus, in today’s environment, few will bat an eye at the provocative sexual imagery in Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, which, just last year, stirred outrage among part of America’s populace (if not the store’s youthful customers). At the same time, they are quick to pass judgment on Martha Stewart for alleged insider trading, before the lifestyle icon has her day in court to answer charges of securities fraud.

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