Historical Look at How WWE's Most Controversial Storylines Impacted Public Image

Donald Wood@@Donald_WoodFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2013

Photo courtesy of WWE.com
Photo courtesy of WWE.com

Regarding the wrestling business, Eric Bischoff said it best: Controversy creates cash.

The WWE has been a master in the field of controversy over the years, and the company’s latest run-in with political analyst Glenn Beck (h/t New York Post) is the perfect way to create a stir without going beyond the programming’s PG rating.

Beck was angry because Jack Swagger and new manager Zeb Colter adopted a xenophobic gimmick that a few very-vocal conservatives found hit too close to home and was "demonizing the Tea Party."

That kind of reach into the political spectrum is the mainstream attention the WWE as a business feeds off.

The more mainstream publicity that Beck’s original comments and the WWE’s response gets (h/t WWE.com), the more eyes that will be tuning into WWE programming trying to see what all the talk is about.

Wrestling is a business, and just like in every other company that is centered around television, provocative and controversial topics help drive ratings. The edgier the subject matter, the more the people tuning in will feel a reaction to what they are seeing and invest into it emotionally.

How the public views wrestling after all the years of creating controversy is a different story.

Just like Howard Stern, the WWE has been marginalized over the years because of the unacceptable stunts it has pulled in the past, but the company has worked diligently to clean up its public image via increased drug testing and a more appropriate TV rating (TV-PG).

Through the years, the WWE has done a great job to convince people that the programming is acceptable to all ages, but that doesn’t mean it will be controversy free.

This is how causing a mainstream buzz has hurt the WWE in the past, and how the company is taking those lessons and learning from them moving forward.


How Controversy Hurt WWE in the Past

One of the best ways to get new fans to tune into the programming is by creating controversy that reaches a mainstream level, something the WWE was great in the late 1990s during the Attitude Era.

It’s ironic that Triple H—the son-in-law of WWE CEO Vince McMahon—returned to television Monday night because he was one of the biggest lightning rods for controversy in the WWE for years and a contributor to why people still view the company in a negative light.

From a necrophilia angle with Kane and Katie Vick to marrying a drugged Stephanie McMahon in Las Vegas to invading the WCW as a member of D-X, Triple H was at the forefront of many of the storylines that caught mainstream attention.

The problem was that the press the WWE got was not positive.

It went far beyond just Triple H, though, spanning from lewd sexual angles featuring Vince McMahon himself to a terrorist storyline featuring Muhammad Hassan & Daivari. The backlash against that terrorist gimmick even forced the WWE to change the booking of the angle (h/t WrestleView.)

Instead of looking like a respectable business, the sport of wrestling was treated like a sideshow or a glorified Jerry Springer show. That’s not what the business is or how it needs to be perceived to succeed over a long period of time.

McMahon and company felt the negative backlash over the Attitude Era and the over-the-line storylines that offended so many fans, and the company was forced to assess its principles while it learned to re-focus its efforts and adapt to a different time.

The fans will complain about the PG Era holding the WWE down, but some of the most controversial storylines can be done in the company’s current format.

Just ask Zeb Colter.


How WWE Can Use Controversy Moving Forward

The WWE doesn’t use nudity or much vulgarity anymore—and rightly so with a budding company trying to build a new generation of fans in a more politically correct world—but the creative team has learned how to stir the pot in other ways over the years.

It would be easy to get a mainstream reaction from something vulgar, but it takes real skill and creativity to build a character that has enough depth to make a casual fan hate that person from just a few lines on a microphone.

That’s exactly what the WWE has done with Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter so far.

As much as the gimmick alone will get the duo mainstream publicity, an angle isn’t truly controversial until it has a celebrity involved.

The WWE has used the formula of getting a celebrity physically involved with a wrestler—from Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather punching the Big Show in the face—to garner coverage from the mainstream media that is enamored with the big names.

Just look at the latest inductee into the 2013 Hall of Fame, Donald Trump. Along with the power of the WWE Universe, Trump and McMahon created plenty of controversy working together over the years, all of which led to positive press.

If the WWE keeps the product acceptable to all audiences, it widens the spectrum of fans they could be reaching, which in turn increases the amount of fans that could possibly invest money into the business.

Whether hardcore wrestling fans like Swagger’s angle or not, the fact that WWE is pursuing Beck proves that it feels the risk is well worth the reward.

As long as the rants from the conservative pair stay above the politically-correct belt, the We The People angle will be a huge success for the creative team and a sign of more interesting angles to come from the WWE.


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