Netflix scores a PR win by trolling USC over admissions probe

Netflix did more than troll the University of Southern California.

By putting up billboards promoting its new show “The Politician” -- which feature a mother smugly suggesting she bought prestigious school admissions for her sons -- outside a college embroiled in a wide-reaching scandal over such behavior, it got the kind of publicity that money can’t necessarily buy.

In addition to the views from drivers and pedestrians that billboard owners typically charge for, the sign spurred rapid-fire Twitter speculation about its thinly-veiled innuendo. And from there, stories in publications from Bustle to the New York Post.

"You know how much ink these guys are going to get from these billboards? It's every goal of every ad campaign," said Eric Yaverbaum, who has more than 30 years of public relations experience and heads New York-based Ericho Communications. "It's brilliant marketing."

Not too shabby a payoff on a freshman production that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings didn’t even mention when he updated investors on the Los Gatos, California-based company’s financial performance in July, saving his breath for rainmaking productions like “Stranger Things” and “Orange is the New Black.”

The satirical show, created by Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” focuses on the fictional Payton Hobart, who’s dreamed of winning the U.S. presidency since age 7 and gets his political start taking private school elections to a new level.

His mom is played by Gwynneth Paltrow, who appears on the billboards outside the USC campus. The Los Angeles-based school made headlines earlier this year when federal investigators identified it, along with institutions from Yale to Stanford, as schools where parents had paid bribes to win admission for their children.

Among those charged were actresses Felicity Huffman, who appeared in “Desperate Housewives” and “Transamerica,” and Lori Loughlin, the one-time soap opera star known for her roles on “Full House” and Hallmark Channel movies.

Ironically, "The Politician" was written and filmed months before those events. While the timeline is somewhat unique, Netflix isn’t the first firm to gain publicity by capitalizing on controversy.

Athletic-shoe maker Nike has done it repeatedly, most recently with “Just Do It” campaigns featuring Colin Kaepernick, the face of NFL protests against police brutality, and Tiger Woods, the golf pro who overcame debilitating injuries and legal troubles to win his fifth Masters tournament in April.

"Netflix can't go wrong with this," Yaverbaum added. "They have a sense of humor. They're not uptight at all about their marketing, which I don't think you can be. If you want to play it safe, you get no attention whatsoever."

USC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The school said in a statement earlier this month that it had dismissed two employees after the allegations and was conducting its own review while cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department.

“We will take all necessary steps to safeguard the integrity of our admissions process,” the university said.