This past fall many of us watched as little girl Miley Cyrus “grew up” before our very eyes. It was the MTV Video Music Awards and she was set to perform with Robin Thicke. When you say Miley Cyrus, most of us have images of Hannah Montana or the daughter of country star, Billy Ray. A sweet and innocent girl seven and eight year olds look up to. What happened at the VMAs wasn’t any of the above. It appeared to be a hot mess by an intoxicated pop star. The performance left many of us asking, “Where is that girl’s mother?”

All of us either (a) saw the performance, (b) have seen clips of it since or (c) have heard the incessant talk that took over morning shows, news stations and blogs for the next month. So there’s no need to paint a picture of what went down. What was most interesting about this whole thing was a video interview released the next morning. The Today Show aired a package with Miley where she says, “a lot of people watched and thought it was a hot mess, but it was a strategic hot mess.” Hmmm…. Interesting.

So the question at hand is: was the performance a hot mess? Or was it really genius marketing?

Miley claims every bit of it was intentional. She talks about being trapped in an image of a girl never allowed to grow up. She deliberately wanted to shock the world and make a statement about the new Miley. This is big girl Miley. At one point she even says, “I am more myself right now then I have ever been.”

Did it work? Do we believe it?

By all marketing standards it certainly appeared to have worked. She did something out of the ordinary, got attention and people talked about her 4-minute performance for four weeks straight. I would challenge any ad agency in this entire country to try to get those results. If they did… well, they would make a lot of money for a very long time.

So it worked. Right? Miley had a new story (Hannah Montana grows us; this is the new Miley, etc.), does something shocking and gets attention. Pure marketing at its best.

Half the people reading this will agree with all of the above. They have no problem with Miley’s performance and even support her with statements like, “Good for her.” “She needed to do this.” “Who wants to be Hannah Montana forever?” The other half shake their head, disagree with the logic and still think something “just doesn’t seem right” with the whole thing.

The tension these readers feel is whether or not they “believe” her story. I realize Miley went on the Today Show and said this whole thing was thought through very intentionally and it was designed to shock and get attention and launch her career in a different direction. But is it the right direction? Did she go about it the right way? What will she do next year to generate that same attention? And the year after that? Is this sustainable? Was this a good long-term decision?

It may have worked here in this moment, but it sure seems to be a massive train wreck waiting to happen.

In the end, it is everything we love and hate about marketing all wrapped up in one twenty-one year old pop star.

What we love about marketing is the quick tactic that creates buzz and gets attention and takes off with an energy of its own. What we also love about marketing is the brands that have been around for a long time. They’re “believable,” strong, predictable. We will probably never be surprised this same way by Target or Apple. And that’s a good thing.

So at the end of the day what Miley does is genius. She puts us right in the middle of marketing’s age-old dilemna and forces us to examine the tension. Is it all about getting attention in the moment? Or is it about building a “believable” brand long-term?

What do you think?