Sinead O'Connor is worried about Miley. So is Elton John. So are the bearded guys of Duck Dynasty. But I'm not. Because I know that Miley is a strategic genius and that brands actually have quite a bit to learn from her. You might not like the way her tongue hangs off to the side or the fact that her nipples have become commonplace water-cooler fodder. But you can't argue with the fact that she has captured the world's attention and aroused a response out of the best of us.
Before her now infamous MTV Video Music Awards performance, Miley Cyrus had never had a Billboard number one hit -- not a single one. In fact, the song "We Can't Stop" that she performed at the VMAs rose to the number two spot, but could never quite break the barrier to be a golden number one. Instead, the song that broke that top-spot barrier was "Wrecking Ball," which came after her controversial performance. "Wrecking Ball" didn't just break a personal record, she also smashed the record for most views in a single launch day, with the music video getting more than 19.3 million views in just 24 hours, beating One Direction's previous record by more than 7 million views. Just one week later the video had been watched 36.5 million times in the U.S. alone, Miley's VMA outfit was being called the Halloween costume of the year and a line of twerking Miley "bobble-butts" had gone into production for the Christmas season.
So, you can call her a "prostitute" all you want, but you are missing the larger point that in a hyper-cluttered content economy, she has created a brand that is consistently arousing us. And I don't mean in the horny teenage boy sense of the word -- though I'm sure a few "Wrecking Ball" views can be attributed to teenage hormones. But what I mean by "arousal" is the less raunchy definition of, "to awaken from or as if from sleep, to stir up and excite," and finally "to stimulate desire."
When you see, smell or hear something that arouses you -- your brain literally wakes up, meaning that a group of neural systems in your brain start quickly to send information between each other. As these get going, a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine activates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for our attention. Additionally, another small but powerful neurotransmitter called dopamine shakes the brain awake, providing us with heightened cognition, motivation and desire. In fact, being aroused looks so much like "waking up" that when a group of scientists got together to study the effects of "arousal" they actually used coffee as the "arousing" agent.
And arousal doesn't need to be sexual. In fact our brain is aroused by disgust, fear, anxiety as much as it can be aroused sexually. The brilliant thing about the new Miley brand is that she has managed to arouse sexually while simultaneously arousing disgust -- Mika Brzezinsk said on the Today Show that Miley's VMA performance pushed "the envelope" adding that "there's porn, and there's raunchy porn that's disgusting and disturbing."
It's not just that our arousal makes us more likely to remember Miley. Arousal has also been shown to make us more likely to share. A study done by Jonah Berger of the Wharton School of Business found that a person's level of arousal directly correlated to how likely that person was to share a piece of online content. And it's not just humans that feel this way. Another recent study by a graduate student at Duke University showed that Bonobos are more likely to share food with another arousing stranger Bonobo than a Bonobo they already know. Once the unfamiliar Bonobo was invited to share food, "quite a bit of friendly genital rubbing" would take place. This natural instinct of ours to share when aroused could explain "Wrecking Ball's" record-breaking views.
But the real question is does arousal get us to buy? And the answer is yes, it ultimately does. Miley had been battling Katy Perry for the top-selling single on iTunes for months -- again never quite breaking through that barrier with "We Can't Stop." Within 24 hours of releasing the "Wrecking Ball" single, Miley had strategically claimed the position of having the top-selling single on iTunes.
And we aren't the only ones on this planet willing to pay for things that arouse us. In fact, neuroscientist Michael Platt has found that male rhesus monkeys are willing to "pay" sums of fruit juice to see images of the bright red rumps of female monkeys. It's not just sexual arousal that the rhesus monkeys are willing to pay for -- they will also pay to see images of powerful, high ranking male monkeys. Interestingly, they are not willing to pay to see images of low ranking monkeys. Sounds a lot like some consumers we know, huh?
We currently live in a cluttered content economy where brands are fighting for our "eyeballs" as much as our purchases. Fighting for views has meant that brands have turned into content providers with their own YouTube channels, microblogging and Facebook pages. But they aren't alone. Consumers seek self-verification, attention and stardom by creating content and fighting for eyeballs as well.
These days brands are actually competing with their own consumers to get consumers' attention and in order to break through this cluttered content economy, brands need to learn to arouse like Miley does. And the consumers actually have an advantage over brands in this arena because they, like Miley, are, well, human... Meaning they speak like humans, laugh like humans, are flawed like humans and enter into real reciprocal relationships like humans. Humans are genetically designed to arouse other humans. Whereas brand identities are often created in messes of bureaucracies that strip anything resembling real humanity away and as such are often regarded as "soulless" by consumers.
It's not just that people have a leg-up by being authentically human. They have actually learned the tricks of advertising and are actively utilizing them to "brand themselves." Meanwhile, brand-advertising efforts are tied up in the slow and utterly un-human process of perfectionists tinkering in a boardroom. In a new world where dialogue is constant and engagement is as fast as your wireless network, brands are still operating with a certain amount of inflexibility and have fallen behind individuals like Miley. To put it bluntly, people have figured out how to be brands and now it's time for the brands to figure out to be people.
In a very different context, Elie Wiesel once said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." When we are indifferent to people or brands, we pay no attention to them and they disappear into the past. Say what you will about Miley, but as long as you keep talking about her she has already won the branding game.