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Scandals: Measuring the impact on a career

How new online research firms are proving that bad news can still be good for business for stars like Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Ashton Kutcher

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Halloween was a scary time for the Beliebers. That was the day 20-year-old Mariah Yeater filed a paternity suit against Justin Bieber, 17, alleging that he had sex with her in a Staples Center bathroom and fathered her son, now 4 months old. Preteen girls across America quickly lashed out at Yeater on Twitter. (”Roses are red, violets are blue, stay away from Bieber, or Beliebers will kill you!” wrote one ”real Belieber.”) The teen idol’s rep called Yeater’s claims ”malicious, defamatory, and demonstrably false.”

But with Bieber’s Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe, landing in stores Nov. 1, the timing couldn’t have been more awkward. Three days after its release, the pop star appeared on the Today show, insisting, ”None of those allegations are true.” (Interestingly, this was moments after his song ”Mistletoe” played. Sample lyrics: ”Your lips on my lips/That’s a merry, merry Christmas.”)

Just how much will this suit affect Bieber’s career? Before Twitter, fans had to rely on old-school methods of communication — email, blog posts, carrier pigeons — to judge a star’s Q Score, a factor that measures consumer awareness and appeal. But now, thanks to natural-language-processing technology, which automatically analyzes words used on Twitter and Facebook, social media analytics firms are posting up-to-the-minute studies of public opinion online, where fans — and, just as important, stars and their reps — can see it in the wake of a scandal. Explains one top celebrity crisis management consultant, ”People are so engaged with social media that you can’t ignore it anymore.”

According to research gathered by the social media analytics firm Trendrr, which works with clients in celebrity crisis management, fans are still in Bieber’s corner for now. Tweets about the singer increased by 37 percent when the story broke, and 63 percent of those tweets were positive. On Nov. 6, when reports surfaced that Bieber had offered to take a paternity test, the number of tweets jumped 67 percent from the previous day, with supporters still making up the majority.

By comparison, when Kim Kardashian announced her divorce from Kris Humphries — as it happens, the same day that Yeater filed her suit — negative tweets about her outnumbered positive ones 2 to 1. Worse, says Mark Ghuneim, founder and CEO of Trendrr, that sentiment ”hasn’t gone away.” The fan disenchantment could affect Kardashian’s debut outing as a novelist: On Nov. 15, she’ll release Dollhouse, a tale co-written by her sisters Khloé and Kourtney, which features the turbulent engagement of ”Kamille.” (Though its Amazon ranking isn’t promising, the book has a first-run printing of 300,000 copies, which trumps first-run printings of books by Joan Didion and Mindy Kaling.) Then on Nov. 22, St. Martin’s Press will rerelease the sisters’ Kardashian Konfidential, a New York Times best-seller, with never-before-seen wedding photos. The updated edition was bound and printed before the divorce announcement, but the publisher guarantees that it’s ”sure to become a collector’s item!”

Of course, a bad image isn’t necessarily bad for business. After tabloids reported in October that Ashton Kutcher cheated on Demi Moore with 22-year-old Sara Leal, the Two and a Half Men star could’ve lost his branding empire, which includes various online ventures and a gig as the pitchman for Nikon cameras. But Nikon has unflinchingly continued to run ads featuring Kutcher snapping photos while flirting with young women. (Nikon did not respond to requests for comment.)

As for Bieber, early predictions suggest that Under the Mistletoe will debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. And Michael Dowling, CEO of the media research firm Interpret, believes that Bieber may even gain a little cachet from the suit. Conducting online surveys through the celebrity-influence tracker fanDNA, which Interpret developed in partnership with the PR and marketing firm PMK*BNC, Dowling’s third-quarter research suggests that teens have been losing interest in Bieber. (This data includes both boys and girls, which might explain why it defies conventional wisdom. ”If we just looked at teen girls,” Dowling admits, ”it might be slightly different.”) Meanwhile, Bieber’s becoming more popular with moms and dads, who might not listen to his music but believe that he’s a good role model. ”When your parents become fans of a celebrity, it becomes less interesting for the teens,” explains Dowling. ”It’s as if he needs something like this scandal to reinvent himself.”

Not that Bieber won’t fight Yeater’s claims. A source close to Bieber confirms that the star plans to take a DNA test in two weeks when he returns to the United States from a promo tour in Europe. And his rep tells EW, ”We’ll vigorously pursue all available legal remedies to protect Justin and to hold those involved with bringing this suit accountable for their actions.” Until then, if Twitter is any indication, his fans will be standing — and, most likely, screaming — behind him.

(Additional reporting by Leah Greenblatt and John Young)