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Can Justin Timberlake Finally Squash 'Nipplegate' Before the Super Bowl? Experts Weigh In
"Because he's white he's been able to continue to make records and his career didn't skip a beat. He needs to have the direct tone he didn't have years ago when he wasn't able to figure out what he wanted to say."
One of the first questions Justin Timberlake had to answer after announcing his Super Bowl LII halftime gig on Sunday was about the infamous 2004 "Nipplegate" controversy. "That won’t happen this time. There was a little bit of that. But…no, Mike, that’s not going to happen," Timberlake told Football Night in America host Mike Tirico during Sunday Night Football.
Though Timberlake has toured the world many times over, appeared in more than a dozen movies, released three hit albums and become one of the most iconic modern pop male singers, the infamous 2004 incident in which he exposed Janet Jackson's nipple during her Super Bowl halftime extravaganza has become a cultural touchstone, spawning its own signature catchphrase: "wardrobe malfunction."
While Jackson was forced to release a video and written apology taking responsibility for the reveal, was barred from the following week's Grammy Awards ceremony and had her music banned from all of Clear Channel Communication's media outlets -- her following album, Damita Jo, sinking to the lowest sales of her career -- Timberlake's career skyrocketed in the subsequent years. In 2006 he apologized (sort of) for his part in the controversy, saying "I could've handled it better... I think America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people." It's no surprise that soon after Timberlake's name was revealed at this year's halftime performer the viral #JusticeForJanet hashtag began trending.
Despite all his accomplishments, it's likely that Timberlake will continue to face questions about that 9/16th of a second that shocked the world. How does the first person to headline three halftimes shows handle that and refocus the conversation on what he is going to do instead of what he did do more than a decade ago? Billboard spoke to a number of crisis management experts to find out how they would handle hyping the Feb. 4 showcase without dredging up the past?
Holly Baird, veteran publicist, crisis manager
"You can't talk about the PR issues without talking about race. Because he's white he's been able to continue to make records and his career didn't skip a beat. He needs to have the direct tone he didn't have years ago when he wasn't able to figure out what he wanted to say and given the climate and everyone being up in arms... the allegations [against prominent men in Hollywood] he needs to directly give his thoughts on it and move on.
"He doesn't need to do it in every interview, it needs to just be one. With Billboard or whoever, with everyone watching and waiting for him to do it. I don't think it's a big deal, it's the best Super Bowl concert to date and Justin Timberlake is a great performer, but they both should have been penalized and because of race [Jackson suffered more consequences]... He needs to own it and accept it and come forward with this thoughts finally. It's not a big deal that he's performing [again]."
Glenn Selig, public relations/crisis management at The Publicity Agency
"I would focus in as much as possible on what's to come than on the past. Try to deflect as much as possible... 'I accept what happened with Janet and apologize for it, but wait and see what happens in the future. It will be something approved for all audiences.' Make it a guessing game as to what is in store this time. You have to address it, but also compartmentalize it and not focus on that. I think people’s memories are pretty sharp on this one and they haven’t forgotten, but you want to make them start talking about what is upcoming, what's in store.
"How do you top a show as memorable as that in a positive way that? You start getting people to talk about how this show will be better. And it's not for him, but maybe for the NFL to confirm that Janet wasn't banned, which is important to point out. Maybe just to get people buzzing, you plant the seed: 'Is he going to come back with Janet?' You say there's a surprise guest and get people talking. It may not be a bad idea to get her as a surprise guest, or tease it whether that's the case or not."
Howard Bragman, veteran publicist and crisis manager, founder of Fifteen Minutes PR
"I'm not convinced it was a fumble the first time around. One doesn't wear cups that pop off unless you intend to pop them off. I think he saw Janet Jackson taking all the blame and stepped back. But the NFL is not stupid, they need ratings, especially this year and if he was smart he'd bring her back. I've always considered it a non-controversial controversy, it's much ado about nothing that if it wasn't for the DVR nothing would have come of it.
"You just say, 'We made a mistake, learned from our mistake and are moving forward and are going to put on a great show. For anyone who feels I didn't take enough responsibility I apologize and I still feel bad to this day if anyone was offended. I'm really grateful for the NFL giving me a second chance.' But really, I think nobody cares. The people who care are a few people in red states who were shocked and offended, mostly by the publicity barrage. Frankly the demo he wants is hip and cool and they send naked pictures of themselves all the time. I think it will be good for the NFL and with so much counter-programming of halftime now the controversy can only help."
Shanté Bacon, publicist, founder 135th Street Agency
"With my communication strategist hat on, I'd say the smartest thing to do is an authentic acknowledgement of it. One reason people are still asking about it and not letting it fully go is that he hasn't fully acknoledgede it. Ninety percent of the blowback happened to Janet -- she was banned from CBS -- while he has enjoyed the kind of privilege that not only allows him to be part of it and not acknowledge it and take a giant steop back out of the mess and get invited back. He goes on to a great career and Janet is out there actively touring now, but she wasn't invited back.
"Especially now that we have Twitter and people can ber held accountable 24/7... if you want something to go away and not haunt you you have to have an authentic acknoledgement. I'm not saying he has to make a confession, but whatever his objective, honest feelings are he needs to say them. If he's innocent, say why. If this was the reason he didn't get caught up in the admonishment of Janet, he could address that and in addition to a genuine acknoledgement he should show some reverence for Janet, who he's always said he was a lifelong fan of. Maybe take advantage of it in a lighthearted way, where you can't in other industries. Maybe infuse Janet into the performance or make light of it. It's more than 12 years since then, she's a mom, she's in a different place and she's traveling the world on her tour.
"She's paid the price but acknoledging it will keep it from popping up again and again. Not talking about it makes it worse. In this day in social media where everyone has a voice and can hold you accountable, it's not easy to walk away from something. The audience will always keep demanding to know why you don't own it."