The 800 Million Dollar
Passenger

By: Myles Badger   |  April 18, 2017

United Airlines is no stranger to bad PR. Back in 2009, after having his guitar broken by negligent baggage handlers, musician Dave Carroll took the airline to task with “United Breaks Guitars,” a catchy, country-inspired YouTube protest song indicting the airline for their initial carelessness toward his property, and their subsequent apathy toward his attempts to seek reimbursement. By some estimates, the video ended up costing shareholders of United up to $180 million.

Compare this figure with the effects of a certain vertical video that’s been making the rounds online lately, showing a 69-year-old man being “forcibly disembarked” from United Airlines Flight 3411 by several airport law enforcement officers. In the video’s first 48 hours of internet life, United’s market value plunged $800 million.

Of course there are disclaimers to this – with a current market cap of $22 billion, an $800 million loss in a single day isn’t exactly world-shattering for a company as big as United. The company’s stock has also since rebounded (slightly) in the days since the video’s initial release. The fact that this huge initial loss was induced by a single video is still incredibly significant though, especially for marketers. While this week’s incident is far more egregious than the events that inspired “United Breaks Guitars,” the numbers paint a remarkable picture. In just 8 years, inflation notwithstanding, the cost of bad PR has nearly quintupled.

Why is bad PR so much worse now? The “Enterprise software for an un-enterprise world” governing brand idea our client Sprinklr launched at their customer conference this month pretty much exemplifies the new reality. In an #unenterprise world, people are not just more aware of the actions of companies, but they’re also empowered to air their reactions back to companies in a real and frequently punishing manner. Two great examples of this: first, searches for “United Airlines” over the past 10 years on Google.

A second, more qualitative and anecdotal example: in terms of brand-damaging content, the extent of “United Breaks Guitars” was a single catchy YouTube video. In comparison, just a few days after the release of the flight 3411 video, thousands of anti-United memes have sprung up across the social media sphere, and a few enterprising game devs are already hot at work creating “Voluntary Disembarkment,” an interactive VR experience that will allow users to play as an airport security officer “voluntarily eject[ing] overbooked passengers you randomly select to comply.” The total number of eyeballs exposed to anti-United content this week is incalculable. Bottom line – the growth and increasing accessibility of the internet have empowered millions of once-passive consumers to become more conscious, and to create and circulate their own content. The content they create isn’t always brand-positive, especially when a rage-inducing video linked to a major corporation shows up in their newsfeeds.

PR disasters like the recent United video, and the damage created by them, are a testament to the power of modern customers.