Prince Harry’s book tour left Americans more likely to disapprove of him and Meghan Markle than support them as a once strong brand built around compassion and leadership appeared to disintegrate on multiple fronts.
Meghan was once tipped—whether rightly or wrongly—to be a potential candidate for U.S. president and as a couple they were discussed in the same breath as Michelle and Barack Obama.
As Britain mourned Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, even serial critic Piers Morgan expressed sympathy for Prince Harry, stripped of the right to wear the military uniform that symbolized his two tours of Afghanistan.
Harry and Meghan began December on the cusp of an unprecedented opportunity to speak directly to their audience through a six-hour Netflix documentary and the prince’s 410-page book Spare, released on January 10.
The day before the streaming platform dropped the first part of docu-series Harry & Meghan the couple cemented their leadership credentials by picking up a Ripple of Hope award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
Yet fast forward a little more than a month and Harry and Meghan have sunk into negative numbers in U.S. opinion polling and nearly half the country would support them being stripped of their royal titles.
So how did it happen?
Prince Harry’s ‘Freudian’ Frost Bite Story
The royal reporting world was braced for Harry to throw hand grenades at his family, and certainly at the media, but what no one was ready for was how much focus would fall on his penis.
The reason was a segment in his book in which he described how he had applied Princess Diana‘s favored Elizabeth Arden lip cream to his frost-bitten “south pole,” which was bizarre enough that some needed reassurance it was not fake.
Clips of Harry’s audio book narration of this moment—complete with the detail that his mother’s memory wafted back to him—went viral on social media, with one Twitter user describing it as a “Freudian nightmare.” The prince may live to regret narrating the audio book himself.
Edward Coram James, chief executive of PR agency Go Up, told Newsweek: “You need to look at what it is about the royal family that people love or that makes them what they are. The underlying attribute is respect.
“If you remove that and you take that away then you’re left with nothing really. At that point Harry just becomes like a reality TV star.
“In over-sharing, all of a sudden the respect and admiration he had across the world for being essentially a war hero and a royal is gone and he has managed to unfortunately make himself a laughing stock.
“The question is can he win back that respect and that sense of quiet dignity because that is the only way he can rehabilitate his image.
“I think that some of the damage is pretty irreparable because he has now put it out there and he will be forever associated with Elizabeth Arden cream.”
What is particularly striking is that he perhaps should have known just how ill-advised this anecdote was from his own exposure to some of the most sophisticated political operators on the planet, not least of which Barack Obama.
Harry who has—at points at least—been close to the Obamas once interviewed the former President during a guest editorship of high brow U.K. station BBC Radio 4.
He conducted a perfectly serious and sophisticated interview with Obama in December 2017 before asking him, during a round of quick fire questions: “Boxers or briefs?”
“Sorry,” the former leader of the free world replied, “we don’t answer those questions.”
There is a reason why Obama shut down that discussion and it is because it would have trivialized the serious brand he has built and undermined the sophisticated tone of his existing relationship with the public.
Barack Obama is, for what it’s worth, the second-most popular public figure in Britain ahead of every U.K. politician and behind only Queen Elizabeth II, while Michelle is fourth, behind Kate Middleton, according to YouGov. There is one other American in the top ten—Martin Luther King Jr.
In light of that moment, it is very difficult to believe Obama would ever have shared a story equivalent to the one about Harry’s experience with frost bite.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s U.S. Polling Collapse
The duke dropped 45 points in U.S. public opinion from +38 down to -7 while the duchess dropped from +23 down to -13 between December 5 and January 16, according to exclusive polling for Newsweek by Redfield & Wilton.
The negative ratings make Meghan marginally less popular than Queen Camilla and both of them less popular than King Charles III, Prince William and Kate Middleton, despite the criticisms of the royals in Spare.
Over the same time frame, there has been a significant swing in the U.S. view on Harry and Meghan’s titles, with 45 percent now supporting them being stripped of their titles and 26 percent opposed.
This contrasts with December 5 when 43 percent said they should keep the titles and 27 percent said they should lose them.
Meanwhile almost half of Americans, 44 percent, said it was wrong for Harry to include private family conversations in Spare compared to 26 percent who said he was right.
Prince Harry, Racism and the Royal Family
Another moment that sparked debate in Britain and criticism from quarters that are normally supportive of the couple came when Harry said in promotional interviews that he and Meghan had not accused the royal family of racism.
One of the most famous moments from their Oprah Winfrey interview in March 2021 came when Meghan accused an unnamed royal family members of having “concerns and conversations” about “how dark” her unborn child’s skin might be.
Oprah appeared visibly shocked and said “What?” and “Who is having that conversation with you?”
However, when it was suggested to Harry in an ITV interview that he had accused the royals of racism he replied: “No I didn’t. The British press said that. Did Meghan ever mention that they’re racist?”
He suggested that instead it may have been unconscious bias and that the two were different. However, at least some anti-racism campaigners in Britain disagreed.
Among them, author Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, who had defended Harry and Meghan on numerous occasions, including in interviews for Newsweek, wrote on Twitter: “Prince Harry you’re WRONG. There’s ZERO difference between racist conscious/unconscious bias & racism.”
Harry and Meghan have a well-crafted reputation for standing up to racism but the prince’s stance complicates this because it appears to hand a get out of jail free card to anyone who simply denies knowing that their actions amount to racism.
Prince Harry Still Believes in Monarchy as Young Brits Turn Against It
Harry also told ITV he still believes in the monarchy and during an interview with U.K. broadsheet The Daily Telegraph said: “This is not about trying to collapse the monarchy, this is about trying to save them from themselves. And I know that I will get crucified by numerous people for saying that.”
However, recent polling by Ipsos Mori shows that supporters of Harry and Meghan in America are more likely to favor abolishing the monarchy, meaning Harry’s defense of the very institution he has spent so much time criticizing complicates his relationship with those people too.
Data collected by the pollster on January 11 and 12 showed 28 percent of Americans who favor Meghan and 23 percent who favor Harry would support scrapping the monarchy compared to 13 percent of those who favor Prince William. Americans who favor King Charles III are most likely to say scrapping the monarchy would make things worse.
Meanwhile, in Britain public opinion among young people has swung against the monarchy in the aftermath of Harry’s book, with 52 percent of 18-24 year-olds now backing an elected head of state.
Harry’s Switch From Positive to Negative
What emerges from it all is an image of a prince who appears to have gone from triggering a backlash from people who hate him to muddling his relationship with those who like him. All at a time when the conversation pivoted suddenly from serious conversations about mental health and race to trivial discussion about his private parts.
Eric Schiffer, chair of Reputation Management Consultants, told Newsweek part of Harry and Meghan’s problem arose from the fact they had switched from years of positive messaging to a negative narrative.
He said: “Harry and Meghan built a brand on benevolent inspiration focused on the environment, equality, mental health and in the last 30 days Harry chose to go negative in a ‘professional victim’ way that has destroyed this sentiment and created carnage for this elegantly positive brand that he had built in America.
“The backlash largely comes from the cognitive dissonance created when you build a brand on a positive foundation and then you turn it into a missile aimed not at a third party enemy but at your father and your brother.
“America is still family focused. Unless they fully understand the depth of his personal pain, the reality TV-like over sharing, in a negative sense, can create negative emotions among some people.”
One of Meghan’s first post-royal moments came when she backed Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and their Archewell Foundation retains the sincere positive positioning that characterized their early interventions.
Its website carries the slogans: “Shared purpose, global action, leading the way with compassion.”
However, Harry and Meghan have now between them criticized the royals and the wider institution of monarchy numerous times.
At the same time, Spare is full of far more trivial complaints, including that William and Kate switched the name cards around on the table at Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding.
William got a bigger bedroom than Harry at Balmoral because “Willy was the Heir, whereas I was the Spare,” while Harry had a feud with an equerry to Queen Elizabeth II who parked his car too close to Harry’s windows at Kensington Palace.
Where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Go From Here
There are plenty of serious, important and even heart-breaking moments in Spare, but overall Harry’s message to the public has become far more complicated in the six weeks leading up to Newsweek‘s polling.
Some might think the prince has never looked less like the heir to Barack Obama. But PR experts told Newsweek it is still possible he could make a comeback.
Coram James said: “Step one is very simple. He needs to stop talking. Not just he needs to stop over-talking. Now he needs to stop talking full stop.
“I would be telling him to really lean into his military duties. I’d be telling him to lean into his Invictus Games.”
He said the games, for wounded military personnel past and present, had gained Harry “so much respect” on the international stage, which was the “trump card” that could help him rebuild his brand.
Coram James said: “He also needs to make up with his family, probably. The public in general don’t like inter-family squabbles. It makes it look like you’re the problem.”
Schiffer said: “It’s not the end of Harry’s brand. He can turn it around and the way he turns it around is standing down from the attacks on the king and William and focusing back on the environment and mental health and equality and away from the book.”
He added that America loves a “comeback story.”