Stoke controversy, don't douse it

A few years ago, there was outrage when the owner of a certain art gallery paid a million pounds for a modern sculpture.

At the time, it was an unheard-of amount of money.

A million pounds for a Michelangelo or a da Vinci, maybe, but this was just a copy of a child’s toy – only many times bigger.

No-one had ever paid that kind of money for a work by a living artist.

A million pounds was like breaking the sound barrier.

It was so outrageous that all the papers gave it more space than they’d ever given to a piece of art.

The queues to see it were round the block.

Due to its notoriety, it’s now worth many times more than that.

But, apparently, it wasn’t even true.

Apparently, the gallery owner didn’t really pay a million pounds for it.

That was just the story he allowed to circulate in the papers.

Why would he do that?

Why would he allow a controversy to build?

After all, every advertising agency and every client nowadays hates controversy.

They would immediately issue a press release to squash it.

So no-one would print the story.

But then no-one would come to see the sculpture, and it would be worth a fraction of what it is.

Because they would be dousing a controversy, instead of stoking it the way that gallery owner did.

Apparently, that same gallery owner had a problem with an exhibition of Polaroid photographs.

The shots were mainly ordinary pictures from an artist’s life.

I went to see it – it was a pretty dull show and the gallery was empty.

Then I read in the newspaper that the police had raided the exhibition.

Apparently, they received an anonymous tip-off that in some of the Polaroids the artist’s children were naked in the bath.

This ran counter to the laws on child pornography.

The artistic community was outraged: this was censorship of free artistic expression.

Every newspaper featured an article about the rights of artists to make art without silly prudish constraints.

An ad ran in all newspapers, signed by famous artists who felt they needed to show solidarity.

Suddenly, the exhibition became controversial, outrageous.

In fact, people queued around the block to get in.

But why did the gallery owner allow the controversy to build?

Why didn’t he do what most clients and agencies would do nowadays to avoid controversy?

Quietly close the exhibition and hope nobody noticed?

He didn’t do it because the Polaroid photographs would be worth a fraction of what they are today.

The gallery owner understood: you don’t douse a controversy, you stoke it.

Controversy means people are talking about it, and word-of-mouth is free advertising.

What is known as going viral.

That gallery owner could have had a very successful career if he’d chosen to go into advertising.

Incidentally, the police never did find out who made the anonymous tip-off about the Polaroids.

But I think we can hazard a guess.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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