Can negative reviews actually boost sales?

By Steve Moran

I want to start by saying I don’t mean this article to impugn anyone who worked at Emeritus during the time they were under attack by PBS and ProPublica. It was an incredibly difficult time for every single person working at Emeritus and they were doing the best they could.

And yet, there is something worth thinking about . . .

I am listening to a lecture series produced by The Great Courses titled “How Ideas Spread” and the presenter talked about some research that was done on how much influence reader reviews have on the sale of books.   

What they found was part obvious and part completely counterintuitive.  

The Positive Power of Negative Publicity

For well known authors, like Stephen King, John Grisham and David Baldacci negative reviews like “Not up to their usual standard”, “Boring”, “Predictable” can substantially hurt the sale of books, which you would expect to be true. The counterintuitive thing though is that for authors who are essentially unknown, negative reviews can actually boost sales because it takes that book from being completely unknown to a reader community to being known (of course, unknown authors with positive reviews would presumably do even better).

The key here is that the negative reviews took the books and authors from “out of sight, out of mind” to “known,” which in turn boosted sales.

Perception and Reality

For all of us in the senior living industry the assault on Emeritus felt a bit like a life and death struggle. Yet in reality, even when all the negativity was at it’s peak, even here in Sacramento — where I live — where the most prominent legal battle was fought, I am betting that if you had gone out on the streets and interviewed people about the Emeritus story you would been lucky to find one person in a hundred who had any idea what you were talking about.  

In the first place not that many people pay attention to PBS. In addition, we are bombarded with so many stories of scandals in business and government it is hard to keep them straight or even care.

Senior Living, Negativity and Lemonade

And yet to a greater or lesser degree the ProPublica story raised the awareness of senior living to a higher level in a way that had never been done before. The way Emeritus and the industry responded was pretty typical and at least in a traditional sense not even wrong.  

But now imagine for a moment . . .

That instead of hunkering down with little or no comment, Emeritus — and the whole senior living industry — had started aggressively cranking out stories about how senior living was positively impacting the lives of seniors, team members and family members. It would have had to have been a careful balancing act, particularly for Emeritus; however, I find myself wondering if it might have been a marvelous opportunity to really use a terrible thing that happened to tell our story better.