15 Crazy Publicity Stunts

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Any economist will tell you that the world runs on hard work, natural resources and ceaseless innovation. Crafty companies and individuals have discovered that 100% of economists are boring and liars. The world in fact runs on a variety of drugs, broken dreams, and–most important of all–fame. To this end, they have gone out of their way to concoct the most harebrained stunts that rocket them to fame and success. Or infamy and sleaze, but this is pop culture so the line is a fine one.

Women on Waves

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In 2001, someone apparently remembered the gambling paradise that is international waters and decided to apply this idea to other less-selfish illegal things. What sort of illegal things? Hows about abortion. The group Women on Waves, which is based in the Netherlands, decided to get a giant ship and sail to Dublin, where abortion is illegal. Once they loaded up the pregnant mothers, they would sail to international waters, where Dutch laws apply on the ship and abortions could be legally performed.

Designed as mostly a publicity stunt to raise awareness of women’s issues, the trip was wildly successful despite uproar from both the Irish and Dutch governments. According to some sources, it was even responsible for shifting public opinion positively in favor of abortion rights. But the crazy thing about international waters is that it’s an area where Women on Waves’ greatest asset (no laws) became its greatest liability. After a successful second voyage to Poland, the Portuguese realized they didn’t have to screw around in these lawless waters and sent a freaking warship out to intercept the yacht.

Cashtomato.com’s Cash Giveaway

You know those hyper-flashy ads for local car dealerships that inevitably have some sort of “I’m GIVING AWAY MONEY” line followed by flashing impact font? Unsurprisingly, these dealerships don’t actually give you money — they first make you buy a car and contract hepatitis C from being within 10 feet of their sales force. This is perhaps an uncharacteristically smart move, as giving out free money often incites riots.

A few years ago, shameless YouTube copy Cashtomato.com decided to take their super-classy name literally, and went with the lazy stunt of giving out cash in bags of tomatoes. While this sounds like all kinds of awesome, Cashtomato was a west-coast company that apparently never had any experience with an actual urban center. As the CEO euphemistically put it, they were overwhelmed by “street people” [read: the homeless] who rioted over the money. So what sort of kings ransom was in these bags that would reduce people to angry rioters? An astounding 29 dollars.

Eichborn Flies

In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, a lot of publicity stunts crash and burn under the weight of their unintended consequences. Most are poorly-conceived, half baked ideas that probably sound so edgy in the board room but don’t exactly pan out in real life. In an idea that falls half into that category and half into the “pretty neat” category, the German publishing house Eichborn (whose logo is a fly) pasted tiny banners to actual flies and released them at the Frankfurt Bookfair.

While this may seem more gross than anything else (not to mention associating your brand with a disgusting insect), Bookfair attendees seemed more charmed with the idea’s whimsy than its vehicle. This is a rare example of a stunt that amused while raising brand awareness. Savor it, because we still have 11 more chances to crush your faith in humanity. Starting with…

The Speidi “Divorce”

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Ah the sacred institution of marriage. To most, it is a holy union filled with love, family and the sacrosanct open bar. To others who take it way too seriously, it is a holy union under imminent attack from buttsex. Still to others with no shame, it is something to be shamelessly manipulated for a few seconds of fame.

Created in 2007 by mad scientists as a vessel for Americans’ excess outrage on slow news days, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag are well-known for being perhaps the biggest fame whores currently in existence. In 2010 they decided to take this to a new level by filing for divorce. In a testament to how played-out their shtick is, most Americans’ immediate reaction was “I bet they’re doing it for the publicity”, since that is the only reason they had done anything up to that point. Turns out the whole thing was in fact a sham, concocted as a fame and money grab so they could sell a fake-sordid story about the affairs and betrayals that led up to the divorce.

The Olympic Torch

We often think of crazy publicity stunts as being the stuff of modern culture. But there was really no time period immune to grandiose gestures as a means of impressing people without having to actually be better. The Olympic Torch in contrast has, for decades, been a symbol of world unity, of human achievement, of determined perseverance.

Except for that time when it was the symbol of Nazi exceptionalism. Far from being a fixture of the modern games, the torch relay from Athens to the host city wasn’t introduced until the Berlin summer games of 1936. Struggling with one of the most massive inferiority complexes of the 20th century, Hitler was looking for a way to really show the world his Germany’s superiority. While having a team of people run 1,600 miles seems every day to us, back then it was viewed as crazy grandstanding. But like the VW, ethically bankrupt experiments on minorities and jet engines, this Nazi flight of fancy was wildly successful and persists to this day.

Salvador Dali

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Speaking of publicity stunts and fascists, Salvador Dali was perhaps one of the greatest false-hype men in history. His stunts are too numerous to count, running the gamut from employing topless models during gallery showings, to trashing his own art displays to create buzz for his upcoming play. There wasn’t a Dali-related event that Dali wasn’t out doing something ridiculous to promote.

The thing is, Dali was so crazy that it was hard to tell when he was acting, and when he was near death. In one stunt, he entered a lecture flanked by white hounds while dressed in a full old-fashioned diver’s suit. Apparently deciding that oxygen was soooo blase, Dali neglected to make sure there was a way for air to get in to the air-tight suit. As the ambient oxygen in the helmet began to dwindle, Dali started frantically pulling at the helmet which was, at that time, affixed with metal bolts. No one helped him because no one wanted to be the square who fell for Dali’s latest stunt. Dali survived, and repaid the uncaring world by becoming an unapologetic fascist, though biographers are split on whether or not that was just another stunt.

Tung Desem Waringin

As Cashtomato.com proved, giving out cash as a publicity stunt can have particularly riotous results. Indonesian author Tung Desem Waringin decided that violence and desperation weren’t “edgy” enough and decided to add a bit of grinding poverty to the mix. In 2008, this wildly successful author dropped about $10,000 from a plane on to eager fans below. Chaos predictably ensued, with reports of men stealing money from smaller, weaker children

The especially depressing part about this is that Indonesia has a per capita income that hovers around $2,200, give or take. So while $10,000 doesn’t seem like a whole lot to distribute among the presumably thousands of people in attendance, let’s do a little quick math. In the US, the average income is roughly $45,000 which is about 20 times Indonesia. That means that to these desperate people, many of which are living on less than a few dollars a day and struggle to find food and clean water, this man is dropping the equivalent of $200,000 for them to fight over. It’s like the biggest hobo battle ever organized.

The Sex Tape of Paris Hilton (and everyone else)

paris hilton publicity stunt

Remember what Paris Hilton was like before her sex tape was released in 2003? Of course you don’t. She was filthy rich and a frequent presence at swank parties, but no one with an annual income below eight figures knew her. Then her sex tape was released serendipitously right before her TV show The Simple Life was set to begin. Now she’s frequently mentioned in the same breath as famous-for-a-reason people like Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan.

While there is no clear-cut evidence that the tape was specifically released as a publicity stunt, it was released and perhaps the best moment in her entire career and engendered almost instant fame. It’s such a successful device that every fame whore on the planet is releasing a sex tape now. It’s become something of a rite of passage into a brotherhood of terrible people who don’t realize that they’re famous only because they give us someone to hate.

Oprah Car Giveaway


Oprah Gives away Cars
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Everyone remembers the famous Oprah car giveaway, where every member of the audience walked out with a brand new car and a hefty hidden income tax. But quick quiz: what kind of cars were they? What company made them? Did you ever think twice about maybe going out and buying one?

Of course not, because Oprah very savvily realized that everyone would remember that Oprah gave out free cars, not that those cars were actually Pontiacs donated by GM. So now while this publicity stunt is widely considered to have been a stroke of genius that elevated Oprah to Uber-Deity status, Pontiac recently went out of business. It didn’t help that, at the time, the Pontiacs given out on the show weren’t even available for purchase.

Vodafone Streakers

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There’s a common overused phrase in marketing that says that any publicity is good publicity. This is why companies will produce shocking, offensive ads. It’s not because they’re looking to persuade, but because if their brand is on the tip of everyone’s tongue when you need a widget you’ll think of that widget company and their graphic depictions of widget sodomy. There’s an often-ignored addendum to the “any publicity” maxim that reads something like: “incomprehensible publicity is a waste of time and money you douche”.

International telecom Vodafone decided to ignore this advice, paying streakers to run on-field during an Australia-New Zealand soccer match while wearing the Vodafone logo. What sex, soccer or streaking have to to with telecoms is anyone’s guess. Vodafone endured a slew of negative and generally confused press related to the incident. Some speculate that Vodafone was trying to cast itself as the “hip, edgy” telecom (similar to Virgin), in which case they probably could have picked something that’s not a frequent activity of the drunk, fame hungry and mentally unstable.

JMP Creative Houdini

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Magician Jim McCafferty was trying to get his start-up marketing company off the ground back in 1990. Starting with what he knew, this illusionist decided to stage a stunt where he was tied into a straight jacket and locked in a metal cage 300 feet above the stage. After a certain period of time, the metal cage was supposed to detach from its rigging and plunge to the floor.

McCafferty made it out of the straight jacket in time, but the metal cage malfunctioned and it took several precious minutes to get out. In a scene ripped from a movie, McCafferty emerged just as the cage began to drop. He managed to secure himself into a harness that broke his fall, but not before he sustained ropeburn serious enough to land him in the hospital. Marketing experts are split on whether or not the risk involved in the stunt was worth it, since JMP Creative is now a multi-million dollar business.

However all of this is completely moot in light of McCafferty’s sheer ballsiness. Supposedly, immediately after the stunt (when most people thought the close shave was part of the act) a prospective client came to McCafferty and commented on how amazing the show was. McCafferty, who was being loaded into an ambulance at the time after nearly falling to his death, calmly replied “If you think that was good, imagine what I can do for your brand”.

Balloon Boy

Assuming you are older than the age of two, you remember how in 2009 the country was briefly paralyzed over the plight of little Falcon Heene, who had apparently gotten himself into a giant balloon and was now floating helplessly hundreds of feet in the air. Physicists and people with a functional grip of math and reality, immediately began to question how the weight of a small child could have possibly been supported by that balloon. Eventually it came to light that adorable little Falcon had been hiding in the attic, and there was no reason to panic.

The country went back to work, and the Heene family went on several talk shows to discuss the horrendous worry and turmoil. Then adorable little Falcon ran his mouth on Larry King Live and revealed that the whole thing was a publicity stunt designed to net the family a reality show. In a rare show of clarity, the American public chose to ignore the Heene’s afterward instead of giving them the fame they so desired. Well that’s if you don’t count father Richard Heene’s hilarious “proof” of life on mars.

The Death of Superman

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In the early 90s, comic books were beginning to suffer a painful contraction in readership. All the old standby super-heroes were viewed as too old-fashioned, too stuffy and too garish for the modern, disillusioned 90s audience. Superman especially, as the invincible, impossibly noble paragon of America was difficult for a younger audience to relate to. In the age of Nirvana, Superman just seemed too much like everyone’s parents. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done to reboot to medium.

The solution? Kill Superman. What better way to show everyone that your genre has turned a new, edgy, iconoclastic corner than to kill the most invincible, iconic hero in the world? Originally the proposed publicity stunt was to have Superman marry Lois Lane, but (let’s assume) someone smart told everyone to “Screw that, screw that man” and the Death of Superman was…er born. The important caveat to this was that Superman’s death wasn’t just a callow stunt, it was also done really well, so well in fact that Superman creator Jerry Siegel said that he couldn’t have done it better himself. The media blitz that surrounded Superman’s death, combined with the quality comics at its core, reinvigorated DC comics and successfully converted millions of new readers.

PETA

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If Salvator Dali’s Dada zombie had sex with an out-of-touch political agenda, the resulting bastard child would be PETA’s plethora of publicity stunts. No other organization short of maybe the Westboro Baptist Church has such a rap sheet of ill-conceived, generally confusing and repulsive publicity stunts. Also they all inexplicably seem to feature naked women.

There’s really nowhere to start when talking about PETA’s history in this area. From comparing the slaughter of animals to the Holocaust to wrapping people in meat packages, there’s no end to their stunts that confuse all but those that share their highly specific viewpoint. In light of the fact that PETA stunts don’t really need explanation to be funny, here’s a long list of crazy that probably stands unrivaled: They tried to rename fish as “Sea Kittens”, as if people wouldn’t eat kittens if they were as delicious as Chilean Sea Bass. They put naked girls in cages to protest animal caging. They put naked girls in sandwich boards to protest the treatment of chickens. They put naked girls in lettuce bikinis to hand out (presumably awful) veggie dogs. They handed out comic books to children of people wearing fur, letting them know that “Mommy is a Murderer”. So generally PETA is determined to combat abuse and objectification of animals through…abuse and objectification of humans?

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Jasper Burwell - ProspectMX

By Jasper Burwell, Director of Client Strategies

Jasper Burwell is our data and strategy genius here at ProspectMX. He’s had years of experience from running small start-ups and working with large B2B consumer packing companies and everything in between. Jasper has a passion for data, and his experience brings a wealth of knowledge when it comes to our Google Analytics analysis. Jasper helps us dig deeper with our analysis to truly give detailed and holistic strategies for our clients. Jasper holds an MBA from Penn State University focusing in Business Strategy and Online Marketing.