Published: April 17, 2024 By

When it comes to entertainment options—especially television and movies—sometimes we deliberately choose one we expect to be terrible.

Amit Bhattacharjee

Amit Bhattacharjee

This is counter to typical consumer behavior. We don’t seek out bad appliances or poorly crafted household goods, and a flood of awful restaurant reviews won’t send us scrambling for a reservation. But a widely panned movie with the right mix of campy dialogue, off-the-wall plot twists and cheap special effects seems harder to resist. In fact, we might prefer to watch a spectacular failure over mediocre alternatives that are “better” in most respects. 

There’s a term for this phenomenon: “so bad it’s good,” which a new research paper explores in depth.

The paper opens with examples of so-bad-they're-good sensations, including the 2003 film “The Room,” considered among the worst movies ever made, and the 2011 music video for Rebecca Black’s song “Friday,” which amassed more than 100 million views on YouTube. 

“With entertainment, there's something appealing about the worst available option that makes people want to check it out,” said Amit Bhattacharjee, an associate professor of marketing in the Leeds School of Business and co-author of the study, published in November 2023 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. 

The research, led by Evan Weingarten of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business and also co-authored by Patti Williams of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business, sought to understand this “preference for badness,” Bhattacharjee said. 

Minimal investment and immediate enjoyment

The researchers demonstrate that the appeal of choosing bad options over better ones depends on the costs involved. Because it’s hard to justify spending money on lower-quality products with less functional value, we opt for higher-quality options whenever we care about their usefulness or need them to achieve specific tasks. 

This helps explain why consumers are more drawn to badness in entertainment contexts: They care more about immediate enjoyment than usefulness when making these choices, and the investment required is minimal compared to other purchases. 

When you choose to consume a movie, video clip, song or meme you expect to be bad, you’re mainly just sacrificing your time, according to Bhattacharjee. Because we tend to view spending time differently from spending money, he said, “It feels relatively costless to watch something dumb that is not going to enrich you intellectually or be useful to you in any way.”

The researchers conclude that one of the primary reasons consumers are drawn to terrible options is the extent and nature of the entertainment value they offer. “There are some qualities and virtues the worst option has that the best option doesn't,” Bhattacharjee said. “The worst is more likely to be funny, absurd and ridiculous.”

What is bad, though?

The study is the first to provide controlled, empirical evidence that consumers will choose an option because they themselves expect it to be bad. That is, these are not instances of consumers choosing options they believe to be high in quality but most others deem low in quality. Nonetheless, what’s considered “bad” is still highly subjective and varies widely. 

For example, the “Sharknado” franchise is an oft-cited example of “so bad it’s good” content, with Rotten Tomatoes calling it “proudly, shamelessly, and gloriously brainless.” Redditors who enjoy those films mostly agree, though some also characterize it as good or at least “overhated.” Similar online debate rages about the 2023 film “Cocaine Bear” and this year’s superhero movie “Madame Web,” which some reviewers say achieves “SBIG” status and others label mediocre or just “boring bad.”

To study these preferences using a blank slate free of participants’ prior knowledge and associations, the researchers conducted 12 experiments focused on different types of content, including jokes, karaoke performances, auditions for the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance,” and art posted on Reddit. In each category, participants were asked to select what to consume among options grouped by external quality ratings ranging from very high to very low (for example, nine choice options ranging from one star up to nine stars in average quality ratings from previous audiences). 

Within the first experiment, which examined choices of jokes, the researchers found that most participants unsurprisingly preferred the best-rated joke available. However, the worst-rated joke was consistently chosen over mediocre ones with better ratings. The other experiments yielded similar results, and the same pattern of choices consistently emerged across different types of content and presentation formats. 

Bhattacharjee suggested that this research offers a starting point to explore the “dimensionality of badness,” as the paper puts it. For instance, comparing the appeal of badness due to low-quality execution versus badness due to excellent execution in service of poor taste might yield additional insights.

Open questions also remain about other psychological and social factors that contribute to this phenomenon. “There are many potentially interesting reasons why people might choose something that flagrantly violates their standards of taste,” Bhattacharjee said.

There is a broader “fascination with failure” that’s palpable in politics and celebrity culture as well as daily life, he added. Mocking a colossal social blunder may make people feel better about themselves, or simply enable them to enjoy taking part in a viral trend. And as illustrated by the popularity of subreddits like r/ATBGE: Awful Taste But Great Execution and the enduring cult following around films like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” anti-fandom can create a sense of community and offer a safe space to enjoy silliness. 

There’s also a status-y aspect of declaring something “so bad it’s good,” Bhattacharjee pointed out, since praising entertainment that dramatically violates quality standards requires enough expertise to understand those standards.

“It’s another way to signal to other people: I know what’s good, because this is the opposite,” he said. At the same time, it suggests a lack of blind allegiance to social consensus, an attractive quality in itself. Enjoying what’s bad may be another route to pursuing what’s socially good, something that likely underlies a wide array of seemingly puzzling cultural phenomena.