I don’t watch MTV. I didn’t see the VMAs (video music awards) live. Still, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught of mainstream and online media coverage that followed Kanye West’s grossly inappropriate interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech. Drama like that has a way of making the rounds.

The Gossip
Most of the video footage has been pulled down from YouTube (due to a “copyright claim by Viacom International Inc.”), but you’ve probably already seen and heard the gist of what happened – young, angelic, country star Taylor Swift unexpectedly wins a coveted VMA but has her moment in the sun stolen when rapper Kanye West jumps on stage, relieves her of the mic, and announces that Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time – implying that she, not Taylor, should have won. A couple hours later, Beyonce accepts the Video of the Year award and graciously invites Taylor back to the stage to finish her acceptance speech. Shortly after the VMA scene, Kanye appears on the premier episode of the new Jay Leno show. He gives an unplanned apology and is nearly brought to tears when Jay asks what Kanye’s recently deceased mother might have said about her son’s outburst.

This is the stuff of mockumentaries and satire shows like The Office and 30 Rock. Seriously.

The Reaction
The irony of art mirroring life and vice versa aside, the incident is an interesting study on so many levels – branding, PR, social media, viral content, and so forth. In my humble opinion, one of the most interesting observations about the spectacle had less to do with the actions of the various players and more to do with the perceptions of the public.

People aren’t buying it.

In an excellent post on this topic, Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media labels this stunt a “fail” because it appears that it was at least partially staged – even if all the participants weren’t fully aware of the script. Lisa contends that manufactured drama that attempts to trick the audience will always backfire. No one likes to play the fool. In the comments to her post, she reports that many of the folks she saw twittering about the authenticity of the event were not marketers, but “real people, who have seen too many ‘convenient’ situations happen live in front of the cameras.”

The Lesson
So, what does any of this have to do with business marketing? People are more cynical about advertising – in all its forms – than ever before. They are questioning motives, checking references, and making judgments based on what they hear from the people they know and trust. Long gone are the days when the public was largely star-struck and willing to take any brand or corporation at its word. All the world’s a stage, and also a jury – you make one false move in your performance and you’d best be prepared to answer to the Greek chorus of the public consensus.

What To Do
I know, it sounds scary … and, it can be. But it’s only scary if you’re trying to pull something over on your audience. You can avoid trouble by following the rules your mom taught you: be yourself, be honest, be respectful. If you screw up, own it. Apologize. Sincerely. Give credit where credit is due.

Basic good manners will take you far – in marketing as well as in life.