But Jackson and Timberlake also changed how the country experiences live television events like the Super Bowl itself. Famously, the incident motivated an estimated 35,000 people to sign up for TiVo, and a co-founder of YouTube would mention in interviews how the difficulty of finding the 2004 halftime show online helped inspire the creation of the video service.
If communication commissions, culture critics, columnists, and California tech stars paid this much attention to one nipple, it’s not surprising that scholars and researchers around the world do the same. Here are what academics have come up with for three of the lesser-known impacts of the most infamous exposure in pop-culture history.
It Taught Us New Words
The true legacies of scandals live on in our language, which has anointed controversies both political and cultural with their own -gate suffix ever since the original Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.
The Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, or Nipplegate as many now know it, has been no exception. Loyola Marymount University professor Lawrence A. Wenner wrote in a 2004 article from the Journal of Sport Management that this particular Super Bowl wasn't just the first bowl game be a subject of federal indecency investigations and congressional hearings—it was also "the first to bring the words nipple shield into many a family discussion." But as entertaining as phrases like nipple shield, Nipplegate, boobgate, "Janet moment," and "Super Bowl 38D" are, they weren't the halftime show's most important gifts to American linguists. That honor goes to "wardrobe malfunction," coined by Justin Timberlake in his formal apology.
The American Dialect Society, which defines a wardrobe malfunction as “an unanticipated exposure of bodily parts," almost awarded wardrobe malfunction its Word of the Year designation in 2004, but ultimately chose, "red state, blue state, and purple state" instead. Wardrobe malfunction also competed that year for the ADS's "most euphemistic" word award, but it lost to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's “badly sourced,” his euphemism for journalism he felt was untrue or fabricated. (Small world alert: Powell is also the father of then-FCC chairman Michael Powell, who presided over the Super Bowl aftermath and harshly criticized Jackson; in this month’s ESPN feature about the event, the younger Powell admitted he felt pressured to “put on his best version of outrage.”)
Since 2004, wardrobe malfunction has come to signify all sorts of fashion flubs and faux pas: As ADS vice president Grant Barrett explained to me over email, observed usage of the phrase has not only included references to accidental and intentional exposures, but also references to ugly outfits and unfashionable get-ups.
And for celebrities looking for relevance—as some argued Jackson's infamous nip slip was all about—having a wardrobe malfunction might be a means to a helpful career boost. A 2011 study from Germany's University of Würzburg analyzed 17 celebrities' wardrobe malfunctions between 2004 and 2009 to find out whether they were a successful strategies for building buzz. Looking at a range of malfunctions from televised events and musical festivals, the researchers found that each incident caused a significant spike in search traffic that, in some cases, lasted as long as three weeks. So “wardrobe malfunction” hasn’t just shaped the way that people talk about celebrities—it also plays a small role in determining which celebrities they even talk about in the first place.