Worth the Risk? Tips to Take From Famous Publicity Stunts

Business.com / Sales / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

A publicity stunt can be a quick way to get more eyeballs on your brand, but it could easily go wrong if not planned and executed correctly.

A publicity stunt can be a quick way to get more eyeballs on your brand. But if not executed correctly and with the right intention, a stunt can easily go bad. What you do with its success or failure, or if you do it at all, can make a difference for your business.

To Stunt or Not To Stunt?

“There are two camps in PR,” says public relations consultant Jeremy Pepper. “Those who are in favor of stunts, and those who are not.” Because a PR stunt can often be costly, it has to fit realistically into a company’s budget. “The brands that have the budget to pull off expensive stunts are already well known,” he continues. “Yes, lightning will sometimes strike, but for a lot of small businesses it’s not worth risking the money.”

A Smart Tie-In

A stunt also has to make sense in context. Pepper remembers when Dreyer’s, an ice cream brand, produced neighborhood ice cream block party contests. “They got people out of their houses, talking to their neighbors, and engaging with each other over Dreyer’s ice cream. It was essentially a community engagement program with a PR tie-in.” That kind of promotion made sense for an ice cream brand, but might not have worked so well for, say, a sports company or a weight-loss program.

Related Article: PR Nightmares: What You Can Learn from the Biggest Blunders

Learn From History

“Stunts are nothing 'new' and are some of the very first things our industry embraced,” says Marcy Massura, SVP / Digital Practice Lead at public relations firm MSLGROUP. “In 1896 a new railroad company staged a train accident, which got over 40,000 people to come out to watch (and to learn more about the new railroad line).” Only a few people died when the boiler exploded upon impact, but we’re still talking about it today, so that worked, right?

Go Big(gest)

Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 jump from 128,100 feet above Earth is often noted as one of the biggest PR stunts of all time. But having been planned over several years, Red Bull Stratos was a mission meant to “transcend human limits.” Sean Eggert, head of sports marketing for Red Bull North America, says the event was a natural extension of the company’s core values.

“Felix Baumgartner came to us with a dream,” he says. “Will you help me break Kittinger’s record?” (Joe Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet in 1960.) “Because our brand has a passionate desire to support athletes, and the idea was so spot on to the message of the brand - Red Bull gives you wings - it was a good match for us.” And well worth it - millions of people watched as Baumgartner successfully broke the record, and set another, reaching a freefall speed faster than that of sound.

...Or Most, Longest, Highest

“The earned media coverage was priceless,” says Massura of Red Bull Stratos. “So yes, there is still a place for a 'stunt' to create a moment in time for brands who need to boost awareness.”

But it doesn’t have to be a jump from space. Guinness World Records can actually help any business with the right idea achieve a new world record. In 2010, the organization led an event for Dreamworks which gathered the most people dressed as superheroes: 1,580 participants to be exact, to launch the PR campaign for the movie Megamind.

The stunt doesn’t even have to be high-budget. Serendipity, an ice cream shop in New York City, came up with a quirky idea to get attention for their desserts. “They created the World’s Most Expensive Sundae using ingredients like edible gold, truffles, and caviar,” recalls Brian Reinert, Senior Vice President Public Relations, Marketing & Government Affairs for DKC. Even though they didn’t have a huge budget, Reinert says “Their well-thought out concept was covered on national news and even business news outlets like Forbes.”

Apologize Well

In 1996 Taco Bell took out a full page ad in six top newspapers saying it bought the Liberty Bell, renaming it the Taco Bell Liberty Bell. Many folks forgot that it was April 1, and took the ad seriously, raising an outcry against the company and the National Park Service. Taco Bell responded quickly, apologizing for trying to fool America, and pledging $50,000 toward upkeep of the Liberty Bell facility.

“If particular marketing move aligns well with what the brand stands for, and it creates controversy, then that can still be seen as authentic,” comments Eggert. “It’s when a stunt is done just to get attention that you can tell they are trying too hard, and it misses the mark.”

For Taco Bell, the April fool’s trick might have missed the mark with many people, but it got plenty of coverage, which its PR company estimated at $25 million worth of free publicity.

Plan Ahead

“Events like this need to be thought through. You have to prepare for both the best case and the worst case scenarios,” warns Reinert. Case in point: in 2005, Snapple built buzz around their new frozen pops line with the unveiling of the world’s biggest frozen ice pop in New York City’s Union Square. The problem was that it happened to be one of the hottest days of that summer.

“When the truck opened, 20,000 gallons of Snapple came pouring out into the square, sending people running, bike messengers fleeing, and dogs jumping out of the way.” Reinert remembers. “It was a complete mess.” The event still got press, but for reasons Snapple hadn’t anticipated.

Related Article: Some of the World's Biggest Business Blunders

Change It Up

“I think the most successful PR stunt in recent years belongs to Joaquin Phoenix,” says copywriter and social media consultant Laurel Janssen Byrne, referring to the actor’s odd behavior that everyone was talking about in 2008. “He goes absolutely mad, botches interviews, grows his facial hair long, quits acting, starts rapping, only come to find out - it's all a stunt. People were briefly annoyed, but we still love that hairy guy and nominate him for more Oscars. This was a pure PR stunt and it worked.”

Jeremy Pepper recalls New Coke - when the soda brand changed its flavor in the 1980’s, as a “magnificent failure.” The brand was essentially marketing against itself, he says. “Coke owns happiness,” suggests Pepper. “How do you market against happiness?” The move backfired...or did it? People hoarded “classic” Coke and rallied for the return of the 100-year-old flavor.

Skip It

Why bother? With social media now a part of our lives, getting your message out is a lot easier - and less expensive. Jackie Titus, head of strategy for marketing agency Artemis Ward, suggests taking advantage of it.

“These days we have the benefit of much smarter platforms and technology and what we learn about a potential audience over time, through several engagements makes the brand and/or experience better for the end-user,” she says. “This approach still requires a learning shift at all levels, because if a ‘moment in time’ and headlines are what you're looking for, then a big stunt may be what you're after.”

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