The Streisand Effect Explains Why Nothing Stays Hidden

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an example of unintended consequences called the cobra effect in which an attempt to reduce the snake population actually increased it. A reader emailed me asking me if I had heard of a similar phenomenon called the Streisand effect. Since I hadn’t, I thought I would share the concept with you:

The Streisand effect refers to an attempt to censor a piece of information which has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named after a 2003 incident in which Barbra Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman for including an aerial photograph of her Malibu home among the 12,000 photos he took of the California coastline for researchers to use to study erosion. According to the court documents, only 6 people (including Streisand’s attorneys) had downloaded the image before the lawsuit was filed. As a result of the publicity surrounding the lawsuit, an estimated more than one million people viewed the photograph. Streisand’s attempt to keep the photo hidden from people resulted in more people seeing it. And one more thing: Streisand lost the lawsuit and had to pay Adelman’s legal fees.

The Streisand effect underscores much of our celebrity worship culture and the dramatic rise of citizen paparazzi. If people find out that someone is trying to keep information from them, they have increased motivation to uncover it. We are seemingly obsessed about knowing things that others don’t want us to know.

The marketer in me realizes this provides a reverse psychology opportunity: if I want to spread something far and wide, I should pretend it’s a secret.

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3 Responses to The Streisand Effect Explains Why Nothing Stays Hidden

  1. Scott Leatherman November 4, 2018 at 8:33 pm #

    When I was in college–I took a job in a brew pub. We put newspaper up over the windows of the brewery (behind the bar) during private tastings and cleanings. We were not trying to hide trade secrets — we just needed a little privacy in the fish bowl we worked in. The days we covered the windows — bar sales skyrocketed. The average patron stayed longer and drank more in hopes to get a glimpse of what we were brewing up (pun intended) behind the same glass they saw us working everyday. We would even see people laying down on the ground to look in the window. Once we figured this out, we blocked out the windows a week before a new release. People went nuts–despite the common knowledge that it took more than 7 days to make a beer. The best marketing secret is to not have one, but pretend like there is.

  2. Anon November 5, 2018 at 4:12 pm #

    Somehow I thought this was going to be a story related to a song about Walls and a home surrounded by walls and armed guards 😉

  3. Ken Clark, Translation Guy November 16, 2018 at 1:49 pm #

    In German classrooms they tell the story of Alter Fritz, aka Frederick the Great, trying to get his peasants to plant potatoes, which were thought to be poisonous at the time. Not much luck until guards were posted around the royal potato patch to keep out thieves out during the day but with special orders to look the other way at night. Those stolen spuds were a lot more popular and their cuttings soon spread across the nation, transforming Prussia into a potato empire–or so they say.

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