According to a 2007 study by marketing industry trade publication Media Matters, the average adult is exposed to some 600 advertisements each day, most of which we barely even notice or remember except possibly on a subconscious level. Ad execs and PR people are keenly aware of this situation, and to prevent their product from falling into the memory hole alongside four or five hundred reminders that Coke exists and is delicious, they sometimes make use of audacious or outrageous marketing campaigns ranging from risqué “banned” TV commercials to acts so weird and crazy that police and SWAT teams get involved. Sometimes these publicity stunts pay off handsomely and sometimes they crash and burn so badly that no amount of free publicity and notoriety can clean up their mess. Either way, the results are often pretty entertaining, and with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the biggest hits and most spectacular failures in the history of publicity stunts.
TOYOTA IS SENDING A CRAZY ENGLISH GUY TO YOUR HOUSE
Renowned advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi had a tough assignment in 2009: get men in their early twenties excited about the newest iteration of the Toyota Matrix, a blandly functional little car that was essentially the station-wagon version of a Corolla. Market research indicated that this demographic loved to “punk” their friends in the manner of subversive media genius Ashton Kutcher, so S&S formulated an ad gimmick that allowed you to “punk” someone you knew by subjecting them to a barrage of emails, IMs, texts, and phone calls from one of five fictional characters, none of whom you would particularly want to deal with on a regular basis, let alone invite into your house—and these bizarre people not only knew your name, but your home address, which they were making their way towards during a multi-state crime spree.
After five days of increasingly weird communications from this character, you’d receive an email with a link to the newest Toyota Matrix commercial with the implied message “don’t worry, some random maniac wasn’t actually planning to eventually break into your house.”
This disclaimer arrived too late for presumable Toyota customer and possible Toyota victim Amber Duick, who was unknowingly entered into this contest and “won” a series of creepy messages from fictional British soccer hooligan “Sebastian Bowler” detailing how he and his pitbull Trigger (who “don’t throw up much anymore, but put some newspaper down in case”) were making their way to her home while evading the police. Toyota went as far to create Myspace pages for “Sebastian” and his metal band while sending emails to Duick from the manager of the hotel that the fake Briton had trashed.
For whatever weird reason, Duick didn’t think that the realistic-seeming story of an unbalanced stranger seeking shelter from the police in her house was as funny as Saatchi & Saatchi thought it would be. She ended up suing Toyota for ten million dollars, a lawsuit that has already cleared the arbitration hurdle (while Duick clicked an “OK” button on an online terms of agreement page, nothing in the agreement mentioned that she would be harassed by a random soccer fanatic over the course of a week) and is now determining how much of a punishment fine is appropriate. None of this would appear to have helped sell more Toyota Matrixes (“Matrices?”) so on the whole this would seem to have been a bad idea.
TACO BELL IS BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL
In April of 1996, the American debt crisis was front-page news in many papers, in part because of the brief government shutdown of five months earlier. While Congressional budget disagreements aren’t usually the sort of thing that catches peoples’ attention, advertising firm Paine & Associates saw a unique opportunity to grab a lot of free exposure for their client Taco Bell.
The April 1st issue of the New York Times featured a full-page advertisement from the stoner’s restaurant of choice claiming that Taco Bell would buy the famous Liberty Bell as a way to help pay off the country’s debt, and a press release on the same day compared the purchase to corporate sponsors of highways while also mentioning that the famous bell would now split its time between its Philadelphia home and Taco Bell’s Irvine, CA headquarters.
Thousands of people who hadn’t been paying attention to the day’s date called in to both Taco Bell and the National Park Service to express their concerns regarding a fundamental symbol of American independence being bought out by a pretend-Mexican seller of stale tacos filled with vaguely meatlike material, which Taco Bell responded to with a second press release essentially stating “Ha ha ha, April Fools, suckers!”
The restaurant reported a sales spike of some $500,000 on the day of the prank and another $600,000 the day afterward, more than compensating for Paine & Associates’ bill—especially considering that most sources estimated that the free publicity generated by the campaign would’ve cost more than 25 million dollars to achieve with a conventional ad campaign. Taco Bell also donated $50,000 to the upkeep of the Liberty Bell, and the White House indulged in a rare joke by claiming that Ford Motor Company had purchased the Lincoln Memorial, which would subsequently be officially referred to as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
THE MILLION-DOLLAR SACK OF GARBAGE
Hey film fans, how do you feel about going to see a clumsy rehash of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” produced half by infamous Italian schlock merchant Dino DeLaurentiis and half by trash-bag company Glad, where the most famous or even recognizable actor is the dad from Happy Days? Not really lining up at the box office, are you?
Well, here’s something to consider: if you had the inhuman patience to sit through all 95 minutes of this crap, you might be able to collect all the clues as to where in the United States a Glad bag full of one million dollars cash might be hidden. So in the end, you could make a pretty good return on your investment of a $3 ticket and a $6 Coke.
The gimmick was tied into the plot of the film, where disgruntled government employee Tom Bosley (at the time, spokesman for Glad’s TV commercials) ran off with a million dollars stuffed in a certain brand of plastic garbage bag, but died without revealing the bag’s location.
At the end of the film, the completely forgettable set of gag characters had yet to find the big bag o’cash, and the audience was invited to mail in their guesses as to where it was—while repeatedly being reminded that the bag wasn’t “really” there, so that nobody would go try and dig it up. The first correct answer would win a cool mil, deducted from the film’s gross profits.
Unfortunately for DeLaurentiis, Glad, and the eventual winner of the contest (who correctly guessed that the cash was stuffed up the Statue of Liberty’s nose), the film was so completely joyless and boring that it never actually grossed more than $989,000.
Besides making zero profit for its backers and creating almost no positive visibility for Glad, the film was also responsible for the tragic accidental death of renowned stuntman Dar Robinson. Aside from the winner (who again, didn’t even get the promised million), everyone in the world would’ve been better off had this movie never been made.
“TORCHES OF FREEDOM”
While the public relations industry is generally considered to have started in 1906 with the release of the world’s first press release (concerning the Atlantic City train wreck), PR was only a minor part of advertising and marketing in general until a man named Edward Bernays came on the scene. A nephew and student of Sigmund Freud, Bernays worked for the American government during WWI, where he was struck by the immense impact military propaganda campaigns had on the people of Europe both before and after the war, and pondered the possibility of applying the same techniques during peacetime—both to encourage good citizenship and to effectively sell a product.
After leaving Woodrow Wilson’s administration, he set himself up as a freelance PR man in New York, where he used his knowledge of Freudian analysis and crowd psychology to aid clients as diverse as Dodge Motors, General Electric, and the government’s own fluoridation campaign.
Bernays’ most famous PR accomplishment, however—the campaign that lead many to designate him “the father of modern public relations”—was his work for the American Tobacco Company and their flagship brand, Lucky Strikes. During the twenties, it was considered indecent (and in some places even an arrestable offense) for women to smoke cigarettes in public, leading many flappers and early feminists to light up on the street as an act of civil disobedience.
While a few cigarette companies were tentatively advertising to women, Bernays encouraged ATC to commit to the growing women’s movement to an unprecedented extent, capping the openly political ad campaign with a stunt where he recruited carefully-selected female smokers (in Bernays’ words, “while they should be good looking, they should not look too model-y”) to take prominent places in New York’s Easter Sunday Parade, smoking their so-called “Torches of Freedom.” Carefully seeded press releases, magnified by the support of NYC feminists, resulted in an enormous amount of free publicity for Lucky Strikes.
“EVERYBODY GETS A CAR!”
Everyone remembers Oprah’s 2004 season premiere, even people who didn’t actually see the episode or any Oprah episode at all. During a promotion where she gave free cars to eleven families in need, Oprah sprung a fun surprise on her audience: after hearing the stories of the eleven families, each member of the audience was told a gift box was under their seat, and one of the boxes contained the keys to a twelfth free car.
As the audience rummaged through their boxes, sudden shouts and commotions revealed Oprah’s second, better surprise: EVERY box had keys to a new car. “EVERYBODY GETS A CAR! EVERYBODY GETS A CAR! EVERYBODY GETS A CAR!” Oprah screamed while bouncing frenetically across the stage, and everybody did indeed get a car. The question was, what kind of car?
It turned out to be a 2005 Pontiac G6, a mildly fancy sedan retailing for around $28,000, donated by General Motors in the hopes that the free exposure would revitalize the long-stagnant Pontiac brand. Unfortunately Oprah never bothered to mention the word Pontiac during the most viral part of the broadcast, and the G6’s minimalist and unremarkable styling (think of a Chevy Impala with a little piggy snout, which is more or less what the G6 was) left it completely anonymous on camera. After five more years of increasingly dismal sales, Pontiac shut its doors, along with Saab, Saturn, and Hummer.
FREE GAS AND LOOSE SLOTS
Online “casinos” and similar gambling websites are under an astonishing number of regulations concerning how and where they can advertise their existence—nearly all forms of traditional media are off limits to them, as the debate continues over the very legality of online gambling itself. For these companies, practically the only marketing vector they have are PR stunts where they do something that guarantees that news outlets at least have to mention their name.
If you’re suddenly thinking to yourself, “wait, wasn’t there some company that paid someone to get a tattoo of their logo?” then that means the aggressive PR campaign of GoldenPalace.com paid off—at least a little bit. GoldenPalace.com, one of the first online casinos, pioneered the stunt campaign with temporary tattoos on the backs of boxers and UFC fighters, eventually ramping up to sponsoring competitive eating competitions, purchasing items at bizarre auctions (their $28,000 purchase for a grilled cheese sandwich bearing an image of the Virgin Mary got their name in many news articles), paying streakers to disrupt sporting events, and even buying the rights to officially name a newly-discovered species of monkey Callicebus aureipalatii or “The Golden Palace Monkey.”
Lately, however, it seems like GoldenPalace.com has overexposed itself, and their stunts had increasingly diminishing returns after their 2005 tattooing of some poor schmucks’ forehead.
CasinoShare.com/PokerShare.com learned from the mistakes of that earlier campaign when they offered $40 worth of free gasoline to the citizens of New York on the Friday just before Memorial Day Weekend. While the buzzkill NYPD shut the stunt down before the morning rush was even over, citing congested streets and possible riots, the company managed to distribute 8000 gallons of gas (some to NYPD officers) and make national headlines. While the stunt was risky and controversial, the enormous amount of free media coverage was more than worth the cost.
Everyone knows that bizarre and headline-grabbing behavior is so common (and encouraged) on reality TV shows, but was it possible to be so weird and crazy in public that you get offered a TV series because of it? Handyman, failed actor, storm chaser, and “amateur scientist” Richard Heene gambled everything on that idea—and lost.
Heene and his wife Mayumi Iizuka first came to public attention during their two appearances on ABC’s Wife Swap, becoming fan favorites despite (or because of) Heene’s publicly stated belief that humanity was descended from space aliens. Off the set, the couple lobbied for their unproduced reality-show pilot The Science Detectives (another vehicle for Richard’s alien obsession) but were judged less interesting or insane than, say, Honey Boo-Boo.
Heene then decided to use his handyman/storm chaser/pretend scientist credentials to build a saucer-shaped “weather balloon” of enough size and lifting capability to transport, say, their youngest son Falcon, and if the balloon was to drift off with Falcon nowhere to be seen, one might assume that HOLY CRAP OUR BOY HAS BALLOONED AWAY. Such a strange situation might possibly be picked up by the national news!
After the five-hour crisis where Colorado National Guard helicopters tracked the supposedly boy-transporting balloon across the state (fruitlessly, since Falcon was hiding in the garage the whole time), the Heene family found themselves in the national spotlight like never before, free to talk up their kooky science-detective lifestyle and entertainingly zany belief in Reptoids. Lifetime was getting ready to air the Wife Swap reruns, and the producer of Wife Swap was already preparing a show focused on the Heenes.
Unfortunately for Richard and Mayumi, Falcon hadn’t inherited their talent for lying, and when Larry King asked him why he didn’t leave the garage, the bewildered child said to his parents “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.” It just got worse the following morning, when the poor kid threw up during interviews on Today and Good Morning America when he or his father were asked about the Larry King incident. The Larimer County Sheriff’s department immediately began further investigations, requesting search warrants and expert consultation as to whether such a balloon could ever plausibly lift a fifty-pound child.
Three days later, the couple surrendered to the police on the condition that they weren’t handcuffed in front of the media or their kids (the first evidence Richard and Mayumi actually gave a damn about them) where they received relatively light sentences and fines, considering that the cost of the rescue operation may have reached into the millions. Incredibly, Heene is still chasing fame via YouTube documentaries and the auction of the famous balloon.
ENJOY THE TOUR DE FRANCE? WHY NOT BUY THIS NEWSPAPER?
While today the Tour de France is a major marketing event for bicycles, athletics clothing, sports drinks, and medically undetectable performance enhancers, it was originally launched as a way to publicize a failing newspaper. A renegade group of editors and reporters from France’s premier sports newspaper Le’ Velo (“The Bicycle”) disagreed with the chief editor’s stance on the ethnically-charged Dreyfus Affair (not actually related to sports or bicycling in any way), breaking off to form L’Auto (“The Car”) that would cover the same issues as “The Bicycle” but without the pro-Dreyfus and presumably pro-Jew stance.
Despite being a fair and balanced approach to French sporting and political news, “The Car” failed to keep pace with “The Bicycle” and in danger of breaking down entirely when junior cycling journalist Geo Lefevre suggested a promotional bicycle race. This was nothing new—“The Bicycle” had famously expanded its market with several popular races—but Lefevre upped the ante by proposing the absolute longest bicycle race in the history of the damn world. The financial director of the paper literally handed Lefevre the keys to the company safe, telling him “Take whatever you need.”
The first Tour de France, held in 1903 and covering over 1500 grueling miles, came close to not happening—the daunting length and high entry fees scared off many likely participants until the costs were lowered—but during and after the race, L’Auto was selling six times as many papers as before, while Le’ Velo (naturally barred from covering the event) found itself bled white from losses of subscriptions and advertisers.
A year later, Le’ Velo surrendered and allowed itself to be folded into its former rival’s operations. Today, “The Car” remains France’s dominant sports newspaper under its new name L’Equipe, or “The Team.”
A LITERAL TRAIN WRECK
While the “Torches of Freedom” Easter Sunday Parade is popularly regarded as America’s first PR stunt, it might be more honest to refer to it as America’s first successful PR stunt. In 1896, several years before the public relations industry is generally agreed upon to have begun, William George Crush of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad hit upon what he thought was a can’t-miss scheme to make the “Katy” the most famous railroad in the region: stage a crash between two full-size locomotives, charge nothing to get in, and offer cheap train tickets to people wanting to ride the MKT to the event.
The makeshift city hosting the event (somewhat ironically named “Crush, Texas”) briefly became the second largest in the state, as over forty thousand eager spectators came to watch two huge things smash the crap out of each other.
Parts of this plan—the free admission, the incentive for many to ride the Katy line for the first time—were extremely ahead of their time, but the safety and engineering aspects weren’t as finely tuned as the marketing scheme.
After accelerating to a terrifying 45 mph, the crews of the two locomotives jumped clear and the train wreck ended up being even more spectacular than expected, as both boilers exploded, showering the crowd with hot chunks of steam engine that flew far beyond the originally planned safety boundary.
Three people were killed, several more badly injured, and Scott Joplin rather bizarrely decided to write a song about it, which included special instructions on how a ragtime band might accurately simulate a gigantic train wreck and subsequent explosion. William Crush was fired immediately, but a puzzling lack of bad press meant he was re-hired the next day, although the other executives at the Katy tended to take his advice with a grain of salt for the remainder of his career.
Next: These are the Worst Parents Ever
PASSING THE TORCH (TO HITLER)
Of the many classical and semi-sacred traditions surrounding the Olympic Games (e.g. steroid abuse, cheating scandals, and the occasional international diplomatic crisis, the Olympic Flame only came back into vogue fairly recently, being re-introduced at the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics.
Primarily representing the theft of fire from the gods by Prometheus but also serving many other associated fire-based sacred purposes, the ancient Greeks maintained an enduring flame at the temple of Hera throughout the duration of the original Olympic Games. This was among many Olympic traditions that perished with the destruction of Olympia, but a late-twenties surge in interest in classical European history unearthed and revived the so-called “eternal flame.”
For the ’36 Olympics, influential German athlete Carl Diem (who had played a big part in bringing the Olympics to Berlin and keeping it there even after the rise of Nazism) came up with a way to tie the modern Games even closer to the ancient ones—transfer the fire from the ruins of the Temple of Hera to the stadium of the host city, symbolically uniting lost and destroyed Olympia with wherever was taking part in the Games that year.
His higher-ups in the Party (who had previously been suspicious of Diem due to his Jewish ancestry) thought the idea brilliant, and (in)famous Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl incorporated both real and staged scenes of the torch relay into her groundbreaking documentary Olympia. The torches themselves were designed and built by the gigantic metallurgy/arms conglomerate Krupp, and on their route to Berlin passed through nations that would soon become German possessions or puppet states within the next five or six years, but the imagery was so striking that the first post-war Olympiad (1948, in London, sadly not featuring the Spice Girls) revived the tradition. While there’ve been several attempts to steal or snuff the torch for political reasons (most famously the sustained campaign against the torch as it made its way to Beijing in 2008) they’ve all had to do with the politics of the host country, rather than the heritage of the torch itself.