The Infectiousness of Misleading Hype

March 2, 2020

Sensationalism sells, even for bad news like the coronavirus.

When the email plopped into my inbox, it looked, as it was intended to, like irresistible blogging fodder.

The headline was “5WPR Survey Reveals 38% of Beer-Drinking Americans Wouldn’t Buy Corona Now.” 5W Public Relations, which bills itself as “known for needle-moving public relations programs,” purportedly did a phone survey of 737 “American beer drinkers” to ask them about if news about the Coronavirus affected their perception of Corona beer, brewed by Mexico’s Grupo Modelo and distributed in the U.S. by Constellation Brands. (Remember that last bit. It’ll be important.)

The reported results were appalling, and not just if you work for or hold stock in Modelo or Constellation. Among the findings: “16% of beer drinking Americans were confused about whether Corona beer is related to the coronavirus”; and, even more shocking, “38% of beer-drinking Americans would not buy Corona under any circumstances now.”

The release quoted 5WPR founder Ronn Torossian as saying, “This is a disaster for the Corona brand. After all, what brand wants to be linked to a virus which is killing people worldwide?”

5WPR got what it wanted. CNN and other major outlets carried stories based on that release, and Twitter blew up, with most of the responses castigating the stupidity of those responses, if not of Americans in general. A representative tweet: “Alternative Headline: 38% of Americans are so [obscenity] stupid they can’t tell the difference between a communicable disease and a beer.”

But are they really?

If you look at the wording of that response and some of the others in 5WPR’s survey, you notice a few things that tend to undercut the sensationalism. For one thing, that 38% who “would not buy Corona now”? That’s all beer drinkers, not just current Corona drinkers. I’ve drunk beer for longer than I care to say, but I’ve never bought a six-pack of Corona, and can count on one hand the number of times in my life I’ve ever ordered it at a bar or restaurant. It’s reasonable to surmise that a big chunk of that 38% consists of people who, like me, just prefer other brands to Corona.

As for the 16% who were “confused about whether Corona beer is related to the coronavirus,” it’s impossible to gauge the significance of that factoid without knowing how the question was worded. Just mentioning “Corona” and “coronavirus” in the same sentence, without the proper context, would probably be enough to confuse a lot of people.

If you’re starting to suspect that 5WPR has an agenda besides just attracting attention for its own sake, you’re right. One of its clients is Anheuser-Busch InBev, which markets plenty of light lagers that compete with Corona, and which sold Constellation the distribution rights to Corona and other Grupo Modelo beers in 2013.

Now, if 5WPR or anyone else had started a rumor, say, that Corona beer was infected with the coronavirus, that would have been blatantly unethical, and perhaps actionable. But implying through clever wording that a lot of people think there’s an association between the two is perfectly legitimate.

You know the old bromide about how no one went broke by underestimating the intelligence of Americans? Overstating their stupidity is apparently just as lucrative.