The Value of Controversy

The Sex Pistols: It is really quite easy to shock people into paying attention.

Context: ‘It’s Going to Take a Long, Long Time.’ How the Uproar Over a Bollywood Lyric About Beyoncé Fits Into the Fight Against Colorism in India

As Malcolm McLaren (as manager of the Sex Pistols) once noted – there is no such thing as bad publicity – he even cancelled performance to make the band seem more outrageous than it really was and this strategy worked. Controversial facts fly further, faster and attract more attention, more rapidly. In an entertainment and media information environment of diminishing attention spans and accelerating productivity, playing to controversy is really just another tool in the production company or media strategist’s toolbox.

However one feels about the recent controversy surrounding the movie Mulan, the fact is that over the longer run – the audience share will be amplified by the controversy as a function of media/internet interest and the inadvertent generation of attention. Most publicists will be quite willing to weather the storm of outrage if it increases attention and that is in many ways, beyond media or entertainment, is the zeitgeist. We find ethical considerations, for instance, to be one-step-removed from business ones but none of should be so naive as to be surprised by the implicit and enduring impropriety of this.

Even the article and any and all information generated around it (including my comments here) only serve to increase the hype, the information entropy and the downstream attention. This is how cultural communications systems function – by autonomously self-propagating amplification and recursive extensibility. Finding a balance between “too controversial” and “just controversial enough” is a fine art.

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