One of the reasons I find Bad PR stories so fascinating and worrying is what I feel they say about the current state of modern journalism – how flimsy a premise a story can have and still make it into the press, how evidently a story doesn’t pass the sniff test and yet it gets published, unverified and often unedited.
Take, for example, a recent story from the Mail Online, which made some surprising claims about the nation’s sex lives:
Isn’t THAT romantic! People confess to wearing AIRPODS during sex, as they open up about their bedroom preferences – from signature song choices to favorite fetishes
People confessed to wearing AirPods during sex in a recent survey inquiring about respondent’s music and sexual preferences during intercourse.
The survey, conducted by ticketing service TickPick, asked 1,010 people their music preferences during sex and how it compared to the positions they chose or if they used contraception, to name a few.
The story was put together on behalf of TickPick – an online ticketing service whose main aim was to emphasise how important music is to people, and to use the ever-reliable “sex sells” tactic of getting their brand name into the headlines.
However, looking at the headline finding about AirPods, it seems abundantly clear that this statistic could not possibly be true:
An astounding 17 per cent of people confessed to having worn AirPods during sexual intercourse.
The story claims that 17% of people have worn Apple AirPods during sex. If we pause for a moment and put that figure into context, that would mean slightly more than one in every six people have had sex while wearing the Apple bluetooth earphones. Does anyone genuinely think one in six people even own Apple AirPods?
Far more likely is that the participants in the survey, incentivised as they naturally are to answer survey questions quickly and with little care or concern, saw a question about using AirPods during sex and decided to opt for the more amusing answer. A good survey methodology would look at the findings, recognise the 1-in-6 AirPod stat couldn’t possibly be true, and throw it out as an outlier.
However, this story didn’t come from a study of human habits, it came from a marketing survey designed to create headline-grabbing findings. Whether they intended to generate a false and misleading stat about AirPods, or whether it was an unexpected outcome, either way the client and the PR company they hired are happy – the AirPod stat wrote their headline for them.
Any journalist who glanced at their press release should have been able to recognise the stat as clearly false, and spike the story as a result. And yet, the Mail Online ran 800 words of copy, with associated infographic and link through to the client’s website – a perfect win for TickPick and their PR agency.
When it comes to a ticketing website making ludicrous claims about our sex lives, this whole process is relatively (though not completely) harmless. However, the same pressures and failings that allow a story like this to get through are also present when it comes to more important stories – stories that influence the way we think, the way we act, and the way we understand the world.
By understanding the cheaper and sillier end of the spectrum, we can gain an understanding of the more sophisticated and more important effects of those pressures.