Miss USA, Miss Utah and the PR Power of Stereotypes

Life isn’t fair. Some people are born smarter, better looking and more talented than others. It stinks, but that’s life.

So the hard-working public naturally experiences a certain level of Schadenfreude when a beautiful woman with enough confidence to appear in the Miss USA pageant goes down in flames because she flubs a question about the underlying issues of why women are paid less than men. That is an important cultural and economic question, and one that even experts struggle to explain.

But Miss Utah handled that question like a flying squirrel in the cockpit of an airborne plane. She just didn’t know what was going on or what to do. She freaked. It was painful to watch, and riveting, of course. We’re human after all. In less than a minute Miss Utah’s bungled answer to such a complex question underscored the pageant’s rocky relationship with the American public.

From a public relations standpoint, the Miss USA pageant has long battled the perception that it objectifies woman by judging them based on their beauty and a number of other factors that many view as a means of obfuscating that first very obvious fact. Much of the public believes the contestants are on stage based primarily (if not exclusively) on their physical appearance and that these same beautiful people have easier lives than the rest of us. Like all stereotypes, this is unfair; we all have loved ones who get sick and die. However, when trying to get a beer in a crowded bar we all know it helps to be good looking. (And tall. If you’ve ever had beer spilled on your head you know what I’m talking about.)

For the Miss USA pageant, as a brand, it is important that contestants appear intelligent, earnest and talented. That is not what the public saw—and can continue to see thanks to Youtube—in Miss Utah’s answer. We saw a bimbo in a crowded bar with an apple martini in her hand, amazed by the spectacle of people paying for things. That’s not good for the Miss USA brand, and undermines the legitimacy it desperately seeks.

Do these types of public foibles inflict irreversible damage to the Miss USA pageant and feed entrenched stereotypes? And if so, what exactly can the Miss USA pageant do from a PR damage control perspective?