Manipulating consumers is a difficult game — one the advertising industry still hasn’t gotten 100 percent right. Push too hard and you’ll face some serious blowback, as evidenced in these ten cautionary tales. A publicity stunt can be an awesome way to get people talking about your product, but it can also be an awesome way to get people suing your ass off. Here are ten of the most disastrous publicity stunts of all time.
Dr. Pepper Scavenger Hunt, 2007
Publicity stunts need to be held in public places to be really effective, but that can seriously backfire. In 2007, Dr. Pepper held a multi-city scavenger hunt where the grand prize was a million dollars. On the Boston leg of the stunt, they announced that a gold coin was hidden in the historic Granary Burial Ground, the final resting place of numerous American heroes, including Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. The idea of hundreds of cash-crazed contestants descending on the fragile cemetery and turning it over searching caused Boston officials to close the gates before anybody could get in. The soda company apologized profusely and cancelled the rest of the event.
Katy Railroad Wreck, 1896
In 1896, the executives at the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (also known as the Katy) were concerned with getting enough passengers. So they tasked a man named George William Crush to come up with a can’t-miss publicity stunt to get people excited about the railroad. His idea? A train crash. Figuring that the sheer spectacle of two locomotives ramming head-on at top speed was something nobody would want to miss, he set up a temporary city in Texas and made it happen. 40,000 people showed up to watch the disaster, but things went horribly wrong when both boilers exploded on impact, showering the crowd with shrapnel, killing three people and injuring dozens more. Crush was immediately fired from the railroad.
Balloon Boy, 2009
You don’t have to be a huge corporation to pull an ill-advised publicity stunt. You can just be a crazy family that really wants attention. In 2009, the news media was captivated by the story of Falcon Heene, a six-year-old boy who had floated away from his Colorado home in a helium balloon. Cameras followed the flight of the airship for an hour until it landed northeast of Denver and young Falcon was found to not be inside. That's because he was safe at home; the whole thing was a hoax created by Falcon’s father Richard to get attention to a prospective reality TV show he was pitching. Needless to say, the Heenes were persona non grata from then on.
Imperial Stars Shut Down the Freeway, 2010
When you’re a struggling band trying to break through, sometimes you have to think outside the box. Unfortunately for Los Angeles rock band Imperial Stars, outside the box led to the middle of California’s 101 Freeway. In October 2010, the band drove a box truck painted with their logo and photos to the middle of the southbound side of the freeway and turned it so they were blocking three lanes. They then gave an impromptu performance of a new song, “Traffic Jam 101.” Their idiotic idea caused traffic to back up for hours, ruining the days of thousands of people. Thankfully, all three band members were arrested.
Snapple’s Popsicle Meltdown, 2005
New York-based beverage company Snapple makes a fine living on their juice drinks, but an attempt to branch out into frozen treats in 2005 turned into a spectacular disaster. The company took over Times Square in the heart of Manhattan with an appealing idea: Unveil the world’s largest popsicle and capture the Guinness World Record. Unfortunately for them, they did it in June. The kiwi-strawberry popsicle, measuring 25 feet tall and weighing in at over 17 tons, started melting faster than they thought it would, deluging the streets with sticky, disgusting fluid. The assembled crowd fled in terror and several of the city’s busiest blocks had to be shut down in the middle of the day to let firefighters spray the sludge into the sewers. Snapple no longer makes popsicles.
CEO Gives Out Social Security Number, 2012
When you’re running an identity protection company, you need to give your customers absolute confidence in your services. LifeLock CEO Todd Davis came up with an unusual way to do so – he released his own social security number to the public, trusting in his company’s software to protect him from identity theft. Unfortunately for Todd, his stunt backfired. His identity was used thirteen times, with scammers getting loans in his name, cell phone accounts and more. To add insult to injury, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that his advertisements were fraudulent and fined him $12 million.
Hold Your Wee for a Wii, 2007
When the Nintendo Wii was first released, it was virtually impossible to get your hands on one. A Sacramento radio station tried to cash in on this by running a promotional contest. Titled “Hold Your Wee for a Wii,” KDND got about 20 listeners to sit in a room at their studio drinking water, with the last person to pee getting the game console. Even after a listener called to tell them that the stunt could be dangerous or even fatal, they kept on going. And then the unthinkable happened. One contestant, a woman named Jennifer Strange, headed home and died of water intoxication. The station fired the DJs and eventually went out of business.
Cashtomato Riot, 2008
One of the easiest ways to get free publicity is to give away money. However, it doesn’t always work as planned. Cashtomato.com was a video sharing website allegedly founded by an eccentric millionaire who aimed to compete with YouTube by paying people. To promote the site, they held an event in New York City on Leap Day where they would give tomatoes, each with $29 in cash tied to them, to passers-by in Union Square. Unfortunately, the homeless descended in bulk on the area and the Cashtomato employees panicked and fled the scene, kicking off an all-out riot. People were pushed and trampled, and several were taken to the hospital. Needless to say, Cashtomato couldn’t compete with YouTube and went out of business soon after.
Dell Hostage Crisis, 2011
One of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re planning a publicity stunt is how law enforcement would react if they walked into the middle of it. Case in point: Dell’s 2011 disaster when they tried to introduce the new Streak tablet to employees at their Round Rock, Texas, headquarters. When two masked men wearing all black stormed the complex waving metal objects and demanding employees go to the lobby, the police were naturally called and 24 officers carefully entered the building, identified the perpetrators and took them down. They turned out to both be marketing dudes trying an unorthodox method of getting people to come to their presentation. Instead, they were both charged with crimes. Oh, and Dell no longer makes the Streak tablet.
Next: 10 Most Shocking Live TV Moments
Cockroach Eating Contest Fatality, 2012
Contests are one of the most time-honored publicity stunts. People love to compete with each other and if there’s a prize on the line, so much the better. In 2012, Ben Siegel Reptiles in Deerfield Beach, Florida, held a giveaway of an ivory ball python. To win it, though, you needed to eat more cockroaches than your competitors. The winner was a 32-year-old man named Edward Archbold, who choked down roaches, 35 three-inch-long worms and a bunch of mealworms during the event. Right afterwards, he started puking in front of the store and was found dead at his home later that evening. The coroner’s report indicated that he choked on roach parts. We don’t know what happened to the snake.