Why We Love Celebrity Meltdowns (And Why Marketers Should Care)

By now you’ve seen it.

Earlier this week, Miley Cyrus’ twerked her way into our collective consciousness… and the Internet is still talking about it.

All of this negative attention certainly hasn’t hurt her record sales or social mentions. No press is bad press, right?

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The artist formerly known as Hannah Montana has proven that sometimes being exceptional isn’t enough. Few people are still discussing some of the MTV VMAs’ actual highlights like Justin Timberlake and his backup dancers performing his greatest hits around the Barclays Center for 15 minutes. Or Lady Gaga stripping down to a Little Mermaid inspired sea shell bra and thong. Or Katy Perry closing the show underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

Miley stole our attention because her performance provoked deeper, more primal emotions. This doesn’t mean marketers should incorporate indifferent, life-sized teddy bears into their branding. But MileyGate does serve as a great example of what elicits a strong emotional response. By examining why this resonated with so many people, marketers can gain insight into the sinister side of the human psyche.

3 Ways to Tap Into the Ugly Side of Human Psychology

One of the more unsavory aspects of human nature is the enjoyment we get from watching others behave badly. We usually can’t control it either. We’re hardwired to be self-righteous social climbers.

As much as we like to think we have complete control over our emotions, a lot of our instinctive behavior dictates how we react to certain stimuli. Emotion-driven behavior is believed to be controlled by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Seth Godin refers to this as the “lizard brain,” which oftentimes contradicts the analytical part of our brain. Appealing to the lizard brain can be an incredibly powerful marketing tactic.

1. Schadenfreude

Pop culture reflects our love for seeing others fail. It is manifested in reality TV, tabloids, the Internet (Failblog), sporting events, and even the news.

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Many cultures even have a word for this somewhat embarrassing human tendency. We borrow “schadenfreude” from the Germans — which means deriving pleasure from another person’s misfortune. Schadenfreude is why we laugh when someone slips on a banana peel or gets hit in the crotch. On a more shameful level, it’s part of the reason why we celebrate celebrity meltdowns.

Make it Work for Your Brand: Expose Yourself

Not literally. But do share your faults.

Failure is an inevitable part of being human — and being in business. Brands that are transparent about their missteps are usually forgiven, but also held in higher regard for doing so.

At CopyPress, we’re open about mistakes we’ve made in the past. Not coincidentally, these types of blog posts from our CEO usually see the most responses.

2. Social Comparison

Celebrities behaving badly arouse such strong reactions because, well, they’re entertaining. But, they might also affect how we evaluate ourselves.

Social comparison theory is the belief that individuals form opinions about their own self-worth by comparing themselves to other people. In an upward comparison, we compare ourselves to people who have qualities, possessions, or social standing we desire. This type of comparison can motivate us to improve. In a downward comparison, people look to those who “have things worse” as a way to boost their self-esteem.

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When a prominent celebrity like Miley Cyrus puts on an uncomfortable performance, the primitive part of the brain may view it as an opportunity to rise in social status. This was probably a more useful reaction in the Stone Age — when a slip up by the pack leader was an immediate chance to climb the social ladder — but our modern brains can’t distinguish between now and then.

Make it Work For Your Brand: Share Success Stories

Before and after examples of people who have had success with your brand are effective because they tap into the power of social comparison. Furthermore, success stories speak directly to the lizard brain — which prefers to avoid risk.

3. Gossip

When other people mess up, it gives us something to talk about.

Evolutionary psychology cites gossip as a necessary, and even beneficial, part of social interaction. Sharing information is a form of bonding that establishes trust within social groups. It also lets us warn others in our social circle about potential threats.

Given the proliferation of tabloids, it’s not surprising negative information about people with higher social statuses is believed to be the most valued type of gossip. According to this article in Time, we monitor and report bad behavior in others because:

The brain prioritizes negative information over positive — you’re more likely to survive if you mistakenly respond to a stick as though it were a snake than if you make the opposite error. But because, historically, humans have been the biggest predators of other humans (as well as their greatest source of support), signs of human treachery should be even more likely to capture our attention.

Gossip also lets us communicate our moral values. We reinforce our adherence to the status quo by pointing out unacceptable behavior in others. We also use gossip to deflect from our own shortcomings by calling attention to someone else’s faults.

Perhaps Miley is dominating water cooler chatter because our caveman brains hope her downfall is our chance to rise to the top, but we also want to let our peers know we’d never be caught twerking in a teddy bear leotard.

Make it Work For Your Brand: Voice an Opinion

You don’t need to bad mouth your competitors to appeal to gossips, but speaking up about what your brand values — even when those values are controversial — can pull people with the same values closer to your company.

Of course, be aware you risk alienating some in order to appeal to others. As Miley knows, the great thing about taking a polarizing stance is it gets everyone talking about you whether they agree or not.

About the author

Courtni Berghoefer