Crazy Publicity Stunts: Small Biz Lessons

  • The Stunt that Froze the Nation

    Last week, millions of Americans spent an entire business day captivated by a hot air balloon. When it crashed, we held our breath praying the boy inside was OK, then held our heads in confusion when it turned out he was at home the whole time. Now, we hear this was all a publicity stunt. According to the Colorado Sheriff in charge of the case, the balloon incident was planned two weeks in advance as a way for the parents (who met in acting school) to land a deal for a reality TV show. The parents deny that they were faking. The lesson here may be twofold: 1) make sure your publicity stunt doesn’t require the involvement of the police or National Guard (they don’t like being tricked) and, more importantly, your stunt should make you and/or your product look good… not unbalanced or crazy. Here are ten other stunts that range from brilliant marketing to moral failure (and some that do both). Photo Credit: AP/KMGH
    Hunting for Bambi
  • Hunting for Bambi

    This may be surprising but the title is probably the least offensive part of this publicity campaign from Real Men Outdoor Productions. The event took place in Las Vegas and was marketed as an “adult paintball” business, where men would gear up with guns and shoot at naked women on the field, then sleep with them after the game.  (The Web site actually had a list of women they’d like to shoot, including Hillary Clinton and Oprah.) The women were compensated based on how often they were shot. ABC reporters covering the event described how the men talked down to the women who were shot at. Several expeditions took place and despite outcries from women’s organizations and the Las Vegas community, there were plenty of requests for more. After a few weeks, it was revealed as a hoax to attract media exposure for the company. Amazingly, some argue this hoax was successful, despite being offensive. Photo Credit: Wouter de Bruijn
    The Taco Liberty Bell
  • The Taco Liberty Bell

    Taco Bell loves publicity stunts, and luckily, they are pretty good at it. In 1996, they put an ad in the New York Times announcing their plans to buy the liberty bell, “in an effort to help the national debt.” The ad went on to announce that bell would be renamed the “Taco Liberty Bell.” Thousands of people complained that this was unpatriotic. But according to Entrepreneur magazine, Taco Bell’s profits increased by half a million dollars the day the ad went up, and by $600,000 the following day. While this worked out for T-bell, a more recent stunt garnered them much bad press and little reward. They sent a letter to 50 cent, the rapper, promising to donate money to a charity of his choice if he drove to their store, rapped an order and changed his name for the day. Rather than play along, 50 Cent sued the fast food giant and the two entered an east coast/west coast style feud. One PR expert argued this PR attempt made the company look desperate rather than savvy. Photo Credit: Tony the Misfit
    Snapple Popsicle Melts
  • Snapple Popsicle Melts

    Snapple decided to grab some attention with a seemingly harmless scheme: set a new Guinness World Record for the largest popsicle in the world, using their newest flavor of the time, Kiwi Strawberry. Sounds wholesome enough, but they made two mistakes: constructing the popsicle in the middle of crowded Union Square in Manhattan and doing so on a hot summer day. The popsicle was supposed to be placed upright and displayed proudly, but sure enough, the 171 ton popsicle began melting almost immediately, coating the New York city streets with sticky kiwi gloop. Photo Credit: meddygarnet
    FBI's Most Wanted List
  • FBI's Most Wanted List

    Today, it seems like a permanent fixture of our society, but the FBI Most Wanted List was created as a way to attract media attention. According to Taylor Herring, a UK-based PR company, a reporter asked the FBI’s director in 1949 to make a list of most-wanted criminals. The story attracted tons of positive coverage, and the bureau realized they could use the media to help catch criminals. So they made the list official. Photo Credit:
    Abortions on the High Seas
  • Abortions on the High Seas

    This scheme would never get off the ground in America. A boat sailed from Amsterdam to Dublin (where abortions are illegal), with doctors on board. The plan was to sail willing Irish women out into international waters and perform abortions there. Women on Waves, the group that organized it, considered it a stunt to raise awareness for human rights, but anti-abortionists considered it a poor publicity stunt and Irish and Dutch officials decried the event. Either way, it was a stunt of some kind that attracted international media attention. Photo Credit: mikebaird
    Gas Giveaway
  • Gas Giveaway

    Nothing attracts more attention than a good giveaway.  Two poker Web sites, and its sister site, organized a joint giveaway of 8,000 gallons of gas to New Yorkers. Gas is always a good freebie, but back in 2006, when this stunt took place, gas prices were more than $3 a gallon. Needless to say, the stunt attracted huge numbers of people, and being New York, traffic came to a halt. Eventually, police had to shut it down, though there were plenty of off-duty cops waiting for gas, too. The next one on the list rarely turns out well. Photo Credit:
    Cash Giveaways
  • Cash Giveaways

    It may sound like a good idea on paper, but it’s impossible to pull off. On February 29, 2008,, a video Web site, commemorated the leap year with a cash giveaway. They had done similar giveaways on the West Coast, stuffing several thousand dollars into sacks along with tomatoes and handing them out to passersby. But in New York, they were surprised by the impatient “street people” (read: homeless people) who lined up for the money. A few minutes before the scheduled giveaway time, a mob descended on the bags of cash and a small riot ensued, with several pedestrians getting bruised up. Photo Credit: Symic
    The Best Job in the World
  • The Best Job in the World

    At the peak of the recession, with millions of people looking for jobs worldwide, one job posting attracted more resumes than any other. The position: live on and help maintain an island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The job paid more than $100,000 a year, came with free luxury lodging and, most importantly, you basically got to live on your own island. Job requirements? Be able to speak English, and swim.  Sound too good to be true? Well, the point of the job posting was to promote Australia’s tourism industry. According to one estimate, the stunt brought in more than $100 million in free international publicity for the area. Photo Credit: Ahmed Amir
  • Peta

    In order to raise awareness for the cause, Peta typically resorts to getting women (usually celebrities) to get naked. It’s a little out there, but not outrageous. But Peta’s “Holocaust On Your Plate” campaign? Now that’s outrageous. They manufactured huge posters of holocaust victims side by side with pigs and even went so far as to ship the exhibition abroad, to Germany. This led groups like the Anti-Defamation League to call the campaign "outrageous" and "offensive." Photo Credit:
    Blair Witch Project
  • Blair Witch Project

    The entire movie was a stunt from start to finish. But in order to promote the movie’s release, the filmmakers allegedly sent tapes to colleges claiming college students were really being murdered in the woods. Clearly, this didn’t hurt the film, which grossed more than $100 million in America alone. Photo Credit:
    Celebrity Stunts
  • Celebrity Stunts

    No list is complete without celebrities doing crazy things. Madonna is undoubtedly the queen of crazy publicity stunts, using them to reignite her career ever few years. She released a book of her naked pictures in the 80’s, and kissed Britney Spears on stage in 2003. More recently, some have even argued that her divorce from Guy Ritchie was also one big publicity stunt. We can neither confirm or deny, but if anyone were capable of masterminding their life for maximum publicity, it’s her. Photo Credit: Loz Flowers
  • Nuts

    In 2003, Mark McGowan pushed a peanut across London with his nose in an attempt to protest his student debt. His journey ended when he reached Downing Street, the government center. According to the BBC, he had to fight “abusive people, curious children, wide cracks in the pavement and busy roads.” It was not his first protest, and it wouldn’t be his last.  The following year, he sailed to Scotland in a shopping cart. Photo Credit: lucyfrench123
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