Just over four years ago Justin Bieber began his swift decline. A decline that included DUI, assault and indecency charges coupled with intense media backlash. The teen heartthrob’s quick fame had lead him to riches but this new lifestyle came with consequences.
My research team decided to look at Bieber’s decline from multiple angles. His assault on a limousine driver, his DUI arrest and his obscene behavior of peeing in a bucket.
While no other studies have included all of the image repair crisis’ that we decided to cover, other research has been done on celebrities and athlete’s image repair strategies and their effectiveness.
Other celebrities such as David Letterman, Kate Gosselin, Michael Phelps and Ricky Gervais all faced image crisis’ throughout their fame. David Letterman took heat for comments made toward Sara Palin’s 14-year-old daughter. His initial response attempted to handle the situation through comical denial, but only lead to more backlash from the media. It wasn’t until his second attempt that Letterman applied mortification. His attempt was much more successful than the first but Letterman still had a way to go in repairing his image fully (Compton Miller, 2011).
Similar to Letterman, Ricky Gervais faced negative media responses after his performance hosting the 2011 Golden Globes. Gervais took the performance too far, making jabs and rude comments toward the guests, winners and nominees. The media responded by claiming that his performance overshadowed the rest and not for good reason (Kauffman, 2012, p. 3). He claimed his performance was in response to not taking it far enough the year before, utilizing evasion of responsibility. In an interview with Pier’s Morgan Tonight Gervais used strategies of denial, evasion of responsibility, minimization and lastly mortification. His strategies were not as effective as he had hoped as many didn’t feel his apology was sincere. Since Gervais did not try another attempt with new strategies his image was never fully recovered.
The announcement of her divorce to her husband, Jon Gosselin lead Kate Gosselin into a media spotlight like never before. Their divorce meant their livelihood was in jeopardy, their main income came from their family’s TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus 8. At first Kate presented herself as disheartened and solemn mother just trying to do what is best for her children. Her strategies of evasion or responsibility, attack on the accuser (Jon) and reduction of offensiveness worked to win over the media and painted Kate as the victim. The year following the divorce Kate changed her image repair strategies from victim to a mom seeking fame. Kate’s physical appearance and attitude changed, making it appear that she had put her family on the back burner. This new strategy was met with lots of back lash from the media, unlike her initial response (Moody 2011).
Unlike celebrities Letterman and Gosselin, athlete Michael Phelps responded to negative media coverage regarding marijuana usage with immediate mortification. After a newspaper photo was published showing Phelps smoking marijuana the media attacked Phelps for his poor judgement and character. However, Phelps’s and his sponsors responded with remorse and mortification. Phelps’s sponsors argued that his behavior was due to his age and since it was so out of character they continued to support him (Murphy, 2009). Phelps was able to turn the negative coverage around quickly by admitting he was wrong and promising it would never happen again.
While Benoit’s theory of image repair discourse theory covers a large variety of image repair strategies. Benoit’s strategies include: denial, reduction of offensiveness, evasion of responsibility, corrective action and mortification (Benoit, 1997). Our research showed that many celebrities utilize strategies of denial, reduction of offensiveness and evasion of responsibility. These strategies were often met with similar backlash to the offenses themselves and led most to implementing some form of mortification strategies.
In our study of Justin Bieber we used our previous research of celebrity image repair strategies and Bieber’s social media responses to answer the questions:
- What strategies did Justin Bieber use to respond to his image repair crisis’ in 2013-2104?
- How effective were Justin Bieber’s strategies in repairing his image crisis’ in 2013-2014?
To successfully answer our research questions we analyzed and coded Justin’s media responses as well as media coverage of the three incidents. Our academic study analyzed Bieber’s social media presence following the assault charges, from Dec. 29, 2013 – Nov. 2014, which includes two tweets from his manager Scooter Braun, one tweet from Justin, three Instagram posts: two from Justin and one from his father, a video from TMZ, an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, and articles from TMZ, CNN, NY Daily news, The Guardian, People, Huffington Post and ABC News. These three instances were key components of Bieber’s damaged image. Thus our study covered Bieber’s social media responses following the individual instances as well as the news coverage of each instance.
We chose this sample by finding the responses and articles that were closest in time to the incidents. Our group coded and cross coded these samples to ensure that personal bias was not included in the coding of each of our findings. The coding included Justin Bieber’s image repair strategies and examples in addition to media coverage tone and response.
Having been some time past the incidents we can see that Justin has grown to success again. However, we wanted to discover how Justin responded to these particular incidents and if his responses were effective.
We found that Justin and his family’s responses were mainly denial, reduction of offensiveness, evasion of responsibility or not responding at all. Justin’s manager Scooter Braun responded to his limousine assault incident with the following tweet:
Braun’s responses used denial and evasion of responsibility. Similarly, Justin’s Dad responded with an Instagram post that subtly denied the incident by turning the focus on the safety and home life of his son. He posted a picture of Bieber napping next to his younger brother saying Safe and Sound #HomeSweetHome.
Overall Justin’s responses and the responses of his family were separated as follows:
Media responses to these incidents varied in tone and amount of coverage but were largely neutral. Many responses criticized Bieber for his continuous run in with the law but attributed it to the amount of fame and fortune that Bieber gained so quickly. Many claimed that these were normal responses of a teen.
Overall the negative coverage combined with Bieber’s tactics of evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness and denial left Bieber with a very negative image. While his image was largely attributed to his young age and fame, many stopped believing that Bieber would recover.
After an examination of all of Bieber’s social media accounts, as well as, those of his manager and family, it can be determined that he mainly used reduction to solve his crisis during the timeframe of our study. This research means that Bieber did not use any corrective action or mortification strategies. This demonstrates that he did not feel, or did not want to admit that he felt, in any way in the wrong for his actions. He wanted the issue to mostly just go away and for people to focus on other things. He used denial and evasion each 18.7 percent of the times and then reduction the remainder of the time at 62.5 percent. These results mean that Bieber and his team did not initially take responsibility for the situations that occurred and they were expecting people to simply look past the occurrences.
While his strategies could have been more effective, Bieber’s strengths were found in slightly reducing the offensiveness of his actions by subtly denying and refocusing his audience’s attention elsewhere. Justin’s weakness’ however include not responding immediately, not taking responsibility for his actions and not being viewed in a positive light in any news outlet. These further perpetuated his damaged image.
To make these responses more effective it would have been better for Justin to respond immediately to each crisis and do so in a way that expressed mortification, whether true or not. By hoping his fans would simply overlook his bad behavior his negative image lasted a lot longer. Justin’s social media presence left him very apathetic toward others and presented a selfish famous teen just doing as he pleased.
Our findings correlate with our previous research in the sense that the initial responses by most of the celebrities that we studied was denial or evasion and once those responses were met with negative feedback were they changed to include mortification. It is odd to see how Justin waited so long to apologize of his poor behavior while most other celebrities immediately responded or used mortification rather quickly. While there are not exactly ways to determine the why behind his behavior this study could help other celebrities to know what not to do in an image crisis. Since Bieber is a global star this study could help celebrities around the world.
It is important to consider that we do not have the viewpoint of everyone in our study. We were not able to get every response from the media or everyone tied to Justin. We were unable to get a large sample size due to our time constraints and research abilities.
It would have been helpful to study Justin’s fan’s responses to the events at the time they occurred and later, as many of them are very loyal “belibers.” Further research and surveys could be conducted as far as fan reaction to Bieber’s actions and the implication of these actions for a fan.
Overall, Justin faced the harsh reality of getting rich quick. A sharp increase in fame and fortune is often followed by a quick decline for many celebrities. His lack of immediate response to his actions and incidents with the law led many to wonder if he was actually remorseful for his actions or completely careless.
While we can see that his initial responses were ineffective at repairing his image with time he was able to come back stronger than ever. His purpose album and hit single sorry were received positively for their creative musical talent and for finally responding to his past actions. While his audiences may have shifted over time, Bieber has still grown to be a huge success. Not all celebrities have been able to come back in the same fashion as Justin Bieber. Many have been forever tainted by their poor decision making.
Our research and conclusions about Bieber revealed that the best strategies for quick image repair include mortification, bolstering and reduction of effectiveness. Through these many celebrities have been able to recover their lost reputations.
Ever situation and incident is unique and perceived differently by the audience of celebrities and athletes and for that reason it is hard to fully conclude what is the best strategy for everyone. Benoit’s 30 years of research align with our research in concluding that mortification, bolstering and reduction of offensiveness are all helpful in repairing the damaged image of celebrities and athletes alike.