How Burning Man makes Controversy work for them

As a current public relations student and aspiring professional, I have been taught to stray away from controversy and promote neutral or positive messages. However, in the case of Burning Man, they are proving how sometimes controversy is not necessarily a bad thing.


Burning Man is not your usual festival. It is a week-long annual gathering taking place over Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It is a temporary metropolis created by festival-goers dedicated to art and community. Often described as a momentary city, participants are notorious for heavily indulging in intoxicants to be actively involved in the experience. There are ten principles which encompass this event.

These include: radical inclusion, self-reliance and self-expression, community cooperation, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leaving no trace behind.


There is no money permitted during the week-long festival, only gifts and barter are used as means of transactions. It is centered on an “economy of personality”, where interactions with other attendees overshadow the transaction of goods and services. This festival encourages cultural diversity and the formations of relationships for the duration of the event. The event ends with the immolation of a 70-foot tall wooden man. 

Why the Controversy?

Since Burning Man does involve burning a wooden statue, there are people who feel this festival promotes radicalism. In addition, there is an environmental controversy due the effects of the burning process on the environment.burning-man-festival-2013564789

It is estimated that Burning Man is responsible for the generation of 27,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, where 87 per cent is just from the transportation to and from the remote location. In addition, 900 gallons of jet fuel and 2000 gallons of liquid propane are consumed for the burning of the 70-foot tall wooden statue.

Controversy also stems from the gentrification resulting from this event.  Burning Man is earning a reputation for becoming a “networking event”. Billionaires and millionaire are increasingly attracted to this festival.  Many Silicon Valley techies and tech magazines are also sending reporters to cover this event.burning-man2

As this festival is built around the principles of free-spiritedness and counterculture, lower-class attendees often criticize the growing presence of the elite. The purpose of Burning Man is to built a temporary culture. However, the richer participants tend to pass this responsibility along and have others build and clean up for them. Many believe this defeats the purpose of attending and takes away the true principles of this festival.

Though Burning Man does spark some disagreements, it is a successful festival. According to the festival’s 2014 tax documents, this event grossed $32.4 million in revenue, where the majority was generated through ticket sales. There was also an extra $200,000 earned through the sale of ice and coffee which are the only available items for purchase.

Why the Success despite the Controversy?

Burning Man is famous because of the principles it encourages. Thus, many people look past the environmental and personal disagreements because this festival is one of a kind. This event enforces the possibility of a temporary utopia which is desired by many. Notions of radical self-expression and inclusion seem unattainable in everyday life; but Burning Man gives festivalgoers the opportunity to have this experience.


This is what attracts people despite the negative connotations associated with this festival’s ten principles. Burning Man’s public relations and communications team should get a pat on the back! They embraced the controversy and used it to their advantage. They understood people’s desires to experience what this festival embodies. They recognized potential festivalgoers’ need for a week of release and idealism. They properly identified their target audience and marketed this event accordingly. Burning Man remains notorious for being unusual and unique. Enforcing these key messages is how this festival’s PR team continues to host a successful event.

We all have an innate desire to experience what Burning Man encourages. I don’t know about you, but I am already looking for my ticket for next year’s Burning Man.

Comment below if you feel sometimes it is important to embrace controversy.



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