UC Davis Wondered If $175,000 Would Make The Internet Go Away. Conclusion: No.

In November 2011, two campus police officers pepper-sprayed protesters at University of California, Davis.


If you'd like to learn about the chain of incompetence that led to this, read the independent report. For instance:

Lt. Pike is also responsible for the specific pepper spray weapon he used, the MK-9, and the manner in which he used it. The MK-9 is not an authorized weapon under UCDPD guidelines. UCDPD officers were not trained in how to use it correctly. And Lt. Pike did not use it correctly. The MK-9 is a higher pressure type of pepper spray than what officers normally carry on their utility belts (MK-4). It is designed for crowd dispersal rather than field applications and “[t]he recommended minimum distance for . . . application of the MK-9 is six feet.” Lt. Pike appeared to be spraying protesters at a much closer distance than 6 feet.

As one of its responses, UC Davis spent $175,000. Was it on use-of-force training for campus police? Crisis management training for administrators? More classes on constitutional rights for students? Nope. They spent it on an "online branding campaign" to "expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results" about UC Davis.

Outsource your marketing, outsource your ethics and your reputation. Had the leadership of UC Davis consulted with, say, one of its students, they would have learned that this was an extraordinarily foolish plan. But marketeers, who have an incentive to make money (though rarely as much as $175,000), can't be counted on to tell you about the Streisand Effect or about the limited usefulness of SEO woo or about what happens when a plan like this gets revealed. Marketeers market. So I doubt that Nevins & Associates or "IDMLOCO" advised their client that the natural and probable consequence of spending $175,000 on this was that sooner or later it would become public and a nearly-forgotten incident would blow up and it would dominate UC Davis search results and make them look sordid and ridiculous. Maybe they have a strategy to deal with it, for another fee.

Do you wonder why college costs escalate? One reason, certainly, is that there is no consequence for administrative idiocy or incompetence.

UC Davis, next time you want to waste money to make your reputation worse, I can beat $175,000.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Dawnsfire says

    Am I the only one that thinks IDMLOCO is the perfect name for a marketing company that made money off this crazy scheme?

  2. Loren says

    I love the meme that uses that photo. The one that has the protestors as wants more government, and the cop as more government.

  3. Rusty says

    OK, this is pretty much a waste of $175,000. Actually, it's dumber than wasted, because their reputation will only get worse than it was. To be fair though, even as we're laughing about this, it's a virtual certainty that somewhere in the UC system, right now, someone is spending more than $175,000 on something far more stupid than this. Not rationalizing this, just observing that the CA in general and the UC system in particular does a bang up job of pissing away money on what ordinary people would think is dumb^10.

  4. mcinsand says

    Let's just say, for example, that someone uses the command line google search in a script, and then that script is in a loop to continually search for, oh, I don't know, "UC Davis pepper spray." Would that affect search rankings?

  5. Isaac says

    UC Davis, next time you want to waste money to make your reputation worse, I can beat $175,000.

    For the same level of damage, though? Sounds hard. Whatcha got?

  6. TheInvisibleMan says


    Only if you have a Class A network block available to spread the queries out over a few hundred thousands different IP addresses.

    On a related note, a school district near me is spending thousands of dollars to prevent the release of public records. Those records? Comments the public left on the districts facebook page, that the district has marked 'hidden'.

    On the first request, the district attempted to claim the records were exempt under a certain section of FOIA laws.

    Then the state Attorney General began to review their denial, and the district then responded that it didn't have those records and it would have to create them, in an attempt to use another exemption of FOIA that records that do not exist can not be created.

    So basically, the records existed at the initial request, but were claimed to be exempt when it was a regular citizen asking. But when the Attorney General asked for the same records, suddenly they didn't exist at all.

    In fighting the release of these public comments, the district has hired a ~$500/hr lawyer form Chicago.

    Honestly, the punishment for this should be at a minimum the person making the decision being personally responsible for the costs. Jail would be nice too.

  7. ertdfg says

    Next time? Give me $125,000… and I'll ignore it.
    Which, given how the internet works is the best possible outcome (not good, just the best one available).

    You save $50,000 and get a better result. And I get $125,000 Win-win.
    Now how to market my "ignore it and maybe it'll go away" marketing/re-branding company?

    Damn, that sounds like actual work.
    Which is not in my wheelhouse here. I'm better at passively ignoring stuff.
    I mean that's the skill set I'm looking to take pro here after all.

  8. Daniel Weber says

    The Internet was just starting to forget about that incident. Now it is back on the front page.

    Good job, morons. That money would have been better spent if they lit it on fire.

  9. albert says

    What really amazes me is the apparent fact that university administrators still don't understand the Internet. A first-year English major could have explained the futility of it all, and Katehi has a MS degree in electrical engineering!

    This doesn't explain the idiocy, but may explain the motivation:


    . .. . .. — ….

  10. Daniel Weber says

    Huh, I just did a google image search on UC Davis and could not find the picture anywhere. Maybe they did that job well?

    How can it be undone?

  11. Fasolt says

    @Daniel Weber:

    Add "pepper spray" at the end of UC Davis. On the upside, the SacBee article on that foolish waste of money is the first result on a web search for UC Davis.

  12. UCDeezNuts says

    I yearn for the days of yesterfar, when the town of Davis (my hometown) and its truly remarkable university (my alma mater) was best known for its high-quality education, our stupid toad tunnels, the smell of cow dung on a breezy day (despite an almost eery lack of actual cattle), and the patchouli-soaked vagabonds roaming our fair campus during the storied Whole Earth Festival on the very squad where this jackass used bear repellent to disburse peaceful protesters instead of, you know, walking around them. Sometimes I can't hate you enough, Internet. Also, I'm sorry, take me back. Go Ags?

  13. Daniel Weber says

    Well, sure, if I search specifically for UC David pepper spray I'll obviously get those pictures.

    Was there a point in time when a plain image search for just "UC Davis" returned those photos?

    Incidentally, I mentioned this news story to some family members and they had never heard about it. I thought everyone had. I guess that's my little bubble.

  14. ketchup says

    If I do a Google search just for "UC Davis", then the pepper spray picture does not appear on the first page of image results. However, when I type "UC Davis" in the search bar, the first suggested autocomplete is "UC Davis pepper spray".

  15. Scooby says

    I hadn't forgotten about the incident, but I didn't associate it with UC Davis until I was reminded by the Streisand Effect this week. I misremembered it as occurring at UC Berkeley.

    That's $175,000 well spent, I'd say. Then again, I'm not a California taxpayer.

  16. TimH says

    Here's what autofill on Google offers me when typing in "UC Davis" with the quotes:
    uc davis picnic day
    uc davis pepper spray
    uc davis acceptance rate
    uc davis portal
    uc davis map
    uc davis JObS
    uc davis academic calendar
    uc davis tuition
    uc davis admissions
    uc davis hospital

  17. AH says

    When I search google for "UC Davis", I don't see anything about the peper-spray incident, per-se. I do see four of the six links about the attempt to pay someone to cover it up…

    Looks like they did a bang-up job to me. noone's talking about the incident, because everyone's just too busy talking about the coverup.

  18. Freedom says

    ertgdfg says: Next time? Give me $125,000… and I'll ignore it.

    Some of the best legal advice I have ever given is "Do nothing, ignore this, and it will go away/get better/not be made infinitely worse by throwing six figures down a litigation rat hole that will not solve the problem."

  19. Mark Z. says

    AH: It's like going to a particularly vicious genie and saying "I wish everyone would stop calling me fat."

  20. Jackson says

    Lights you on fire.

    At least they aren't talking about you being fat anymore. Now it's just oh god the smell why god why.

  21. Mr. Natch says

    Did anybody expect something different from the same people who
    mishandled the original incident?

  22. VPJ says

    Huh, I just did a google image search on UC Davis and could not find the picture anywhere. Maybe they did that job well?

    How can it be undone?

    I see several of them now. I guess your answer is to spend $175,000 on SEO consultants in a vain attempt to scrub them from the web.

  23. Matt says

    UCDeezNuts, did they possibly use a manure-based fertilizer or similar in their landscaping? My university had that problem (strong dung smell), especially in early spring, and as far as we could tell, the likely culprit seemed to be when they put stuff out for the plant life in the landscaping.

  24. Mark Z. says

    Matt: UC Davis actually does have a couple hundred cows on campus (and a dairy, and a slaughterhouse). They use the manure from the herd to fertilize everywhere else.

  25. Narad says

    Only if you have a Class A network block

    Man, that terminology is nearly a quarter-century out of date.

  26. echo says

    It's unfortunately now impossible to tell how effective the "online branding campaign" was before it was revealed, but there's another recent example we can look at.

    Melissa Click hired "status labs image management" to restore her reputation, although there's no info on how much she spent. Their "kinder, gentler" black and white headshots never got higher than #26 on her image results, but all the top articles about her are now her own op-eds or scare-pieces about "the perilous implications" of firing her. Except, of course, for evil right-wing sites like The Federalist and Fox News, from whom negative press is an advantage in Click's peer group.

    I suspect "reputation management" once the heat dies down is a very effective strategy, and most of the time we are completely unaware that it happened successfully.

  27. says

    Reputation management isn't the easiest area to work in but just throwing $175k at a problem and hoping that will make it go away is not the brightest idea.

    Sounds like in this case it was actually money spent on publicising what happened and drawing it more to people's attention. A bit like the super-injunctions that are being used here in the UK to try to stop publication of embarrassing issues and pretend that the internet doesn't exist.

    Student protests have been around for as long as I can remember (I didn't much see the point of them when I was a student but maybe that was just me) but I can't imagine why using pepper spray would be a good idea. An apology and a "we'll do some better training" message would have been a cheaper and probably better solution. But cynically that wouldn't be something an online branding company would suggest.

  28. Peter Gerdes says

    Some of the people working on online branding and image management aren't stupid. It's a mistake to assume they aren't aware of the Streisand effect or would do something as stupid as trying to have the negative material removed.

    Indeed, if you examine the contracts posted online they clearly state that the company would reduce the visibility of the negative content by positively promoting other material. Had these contracts not been leaked it might even have been effective.

    Lots of factors affect how long negative publicity hangs around. If the most recent point of interest about an organization (or about them in a context) is the negative event it will be referenced whenever the organization appears in the news and show up on top in search results. On the other hand if you make sure you are famous for some other matter it fades away.

    Politicians can often pull this off by getting involved in some other, less damaging, kerfuffle. It might be harder for a university but it's not impossible.

    Unflattering facts don't disappear off the internet but the can fade into obscurity and we are being naive if we assume smart people can't coax this along with money.

  29. TheInvisibleMan says

    James Hanley says

    April 14, 2016 at 3:43 pm


    Do you have a link for that story? I'd love to read about it.

    I will when the AG posts it to the state website. Right now, it is still in process within their office. Right now, I currently have the email forward from the AG to the school district finding the school districts initial denial to require a 'legal basis for their denial' and supply it to the AG office, along with the school district suddenly coming up with the claim the records don't actually exist now, on the letterhead of the expensive lawyers.

    The AG usually takes a few months to finalize these decisions and post their binding opinions to the state website.

    What state you might ask?
    Hint: The state in question does not currently have a budget in place.