In fact, this common misconception has led to the popularization of the term "free publicity." To illustrate, I conducted a quick Google search of the term and found endless references, such as these recent news stories:
Associated Press (Nov. 10):
"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," almost certain to be the year's best-selling video game, has also become its most notorious. That's because of a prerelease leak showing a terrorist raid on an airport — exactly the sort of thing that's guaranteed to rile up anti-violence watchdogs and generate free publicity.
NBC New York (Nov. 10):
Calvin Klein's latest racy billboard in SoHo is stopping traffic, raising eyebrows and again earning the designer a little free publicity.
Detroit News (Nov. 5):
Fox News Channel is on a roll. A smackdown with the White House has handed the cable news network loads of free publicity, as well as raw meat for its commentators.
Well you get the idea, but it is most definitely the wrong idea. In point of fact, it is an idiotic idea perpetuated by morons who just do not understand the business. As my father often warned me, there is no such thing as a free lunch... and there is no such thing as free publicity.
But that is not even the point of this post. Because I am hyper sensitive to the idea of doing anything on the cheap (I am a big believer in the philosophy that we get what we pay for) my attention is always attracted to the mention of all things free, cheap and low-cost. And guess what I've been hearing a lot about lately? In the world of marketing, the new "free publicity" is social media.
Cape Cod News (Nov. 10):
It doesn't hurt that social media offer a very low-cost way of getting a message out. "We're kind of making it into a shining example of how to do a thing like this on zero budget," said Beth Dunn, a Massachusetts-based marketing consultant.
Restaurants & Institutions Magazine (Oct. 09):
Given its low cost of use compared with traditional marketing vehicles such as print, television and radio, social-media marketing can be a good fit for foodservice operations of all sizes, whether the goal is to drive traffic and sales or strengthen brand awareness and loyalty.
Mashable (Nov. 5):
Facebook offers exceptional, low cost marketing opportunities for small business.
Blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada and on and on.
If you are looking for quality work that leads to quality results, you will find that social media marketing, like publicity, is neither free nor low-cost. It can be affordable and it most definitely can be valuable, but if it is advertised as cheap, I suggest you run - not walk - from the marketer selling you this line of bull stuff.