Ever wonder just how far some companies will go to get noticed? See how 10 companies succeeded--and five failed miserably--when it came to making some noise.
Geoff Williams | July 20, 2006
It's kind of like dating--that's the bad news. There's a lot of effort involved, and sometimes, there's some humiliation. But when you're an entrepreneur competing for the affections of the world, there's always a new heart and mind to try to win over because attracting customers never ends. So it's no wonder you want to try to bring in a ton of them at once by pulling off a marketing stunt.
The good news is, marketing stunts often work. Throughout history, entrepreneurs have tried to be creative about how they inform the public of their product. In 1903, for instance, newspaper publisher Henri Desgrange started a new bicycle road race as a temporary publicity stunt to promote his newspaper, never imagining that the Tour de France would be going strong more than 100 years later. The Miss America Pageant was created in 1921 as a clever way to attract business and tourists to Atlantic City. The Pillsbury Bake-Off, which was launched in 1949, was intended to be a one-time event, but it's become an annual event for the baking company.
But history is also littered with tales of marketing stunts that ran amok. According to a 1926 Associated Press article, for instance, there was a candy company in Berlin that tried dropping foil-wrapped chocolates on its citizens to advertise their services. But police had to step in after they received complaints of bruises and of children's Sunday school suits being ruined; they had numerous gripes from bald-headed men who were getting splattered with the sweet treats. In 1976, several airlines launched an ill-conceived marketing stunt and began giving away free drinks to coach passengers in order to convince people to fly. It was apparently popular with the public, but passengers weren't the only ones getting hammered: So were the companies' bottom lines as passengers drank up their profits.
In the spirit of helping you learn from other business's successes and failures, we offer our list of 10 marketing stunts that exceeded expectations--and five that badly flopped.
10 Marketing Stunts Done Right
Company: Taco Bell Corp.
The Stunt: In the morning, an ad appeared in The New York Times with a headline that read: "Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell." The ad copy explained that Taco Bell was "pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country's most historic treasures.
The Stunt: ProShade is a company that makes a 3-in-1 gadget that combines a visor, sunglasses and a lanyard--which is a cord and a hook that allows you to carry something on them, like keys or a pocketknife or what have you.
The Stunt: Because they're legally restricted from advertising in traditional media, online casino GoldenPalace.com, based in the Caribbean, has devised many marketing stunts to grab the public's attention, from paying people to tattoo their logo on body parts to--earlier this year--purchasing William Shatner's kidney stone for $25,000, so they could auction it off for charity.
Company: Burger King
The Stunt: Obviously inspired by the good folks at Taco Bell, Burger King put out an ad in USA Today, stating that they'd re-engineered their most famous sandwich in order to benefit 32 million Americans, and now they were ready to present . . . the Left-Handed Whopper.
The Stunt: Soon after launching his Manhattan-based yoga school in 2001, owner Jonathan Fields teamed up with Adelphi University to run the first-ever study on determining how many calories yoga burns. Knowing that the idea had media appeal--in fact, Fields also owns a marketing firm called Creative Vibe which he started in 2003--he sent a note to several top fitness magazine editors in New York City, explaining the concept of the study and offering an exclusive to whatever editor reached him first and agreed to do a story on the study. Within a week, Self magazine committed--and even asked to be in the study.
Company: D.C. Comics
Year of the Stunt: 1993
The Stunt: Whether we're talking art or not, D.C. Comics is--yes--a business, generating approximately $40 billion in revenue each year. So it's not surprising that many people felt that releasing a comic book called The Death of Superman was a marketing stunt, given that nobody with half a brain really, truly thought this company was going to stop producing its most popular title, a hit since the Superman character was born in 1938.
Company: Maui Beverages
The Stunt: Because Maui Beverages isn't very well known, their PR department suggested something splashy to let people know how fun this company was. First, they changed the founding executive titles--from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Entertainment Officer--and the Chief Technology Officer to Chief Tasting Officer--giving their company a more lighthearted appeal.
Company: Del Monte Foods
The Stunt: This ongoing stunt is part of a larger trend called advertainment--pure entertainment wrapped around a product with hopes of convincing consumers to purchase said product. Del Monte is currently airing a reality show for cats on Animal Planet.
The Stunt: Half.com, a retail website known for having sharply discounted items, paid Halfway, Oregon, to adopt the name Half.com for their town for a year. In exchange, Halfway received $100,000, 20 new computers for the local school and other financial subsidies.
The Stunt: Another casino, unable to advertise in traditional media; another amazing marketing stunt. Over Memorial Day weekend this year, with gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon, PokerShare.com and its newly launched CasinoShare.com gave away more than 8,000 gallons of gasoline to hundreds of New Yorkers. In a long, snaking line of traffic, New Yorkers lined up to receive $40 of free gas while free food was distributed and music blared.
The Stunt: Snapple attempted to erect the world's largest popsicle, made of frozen Snapple juice, twenty-five feet tall and weighing 17.5 tons.
Company: JMP Creative
Year of the Stunt: 1990
The Stunt: Jim McCafferty, a magician turned marketer, was trying to promote his marketing startup business and decided to pull something worthy of Houdini to advertise his new venture. As the opening act for a concert, McCafferty allowed himself to be put in a straightjacket and then enclosed in a welded-shut steel cage and hoisted by a crane to the height of 300 feet.
Year of the Stunt: 2002
The Stunt: At a rugby match between New Zealand and Australia, two streakers interrupted the game, wearing nothing but the Vodafone logo.
What Happened Next: The police got involved, arresting the streakers before the game was over. Sure, there was a lot of attention and publicity from the media, and if you feel that even bad publicity is good publicity, then consider exposing your company by having somebody expose themselves. Just know that Grahame Maher, one of the CEOs of Vodafone, an international telecommunications company, was forced to apologize for encouraging these two guys to streak through the game--and thus break the law. The company also ended up donating $30,000 pounds to a nonprofit campaign aimed at reducing sports injuries.
The Lesson: If you have to break a law to pull off your marketing stunt, it's probably not a good idea. In fact, it's not a bad idea to consider the law even if you aren't breaking it. Paramount Pictures learned that the hard way earlier this year when it teamed up with the Los Angeles Times to rig 4,500 randomly selected newspaper boxes around the city. Unwitting customers paid for the paper and opened the rack, unaware that the Mission: Impossible theme song was about to start playing. It sounds harmless enough, but the machinery that played the music had red wires stuck out of it and looked like an explosive device. A bomb squad was called in at one location and actually blew up a newsrack before learning what was really going on.
The Stunt: Sony had graffiti artists design--and spray paint--various pictures of their PlayStation Portable at several locations around New York City.
Year of the Stunt: 2004
The Stunt: If you haven't already heard, Oprah Winfrey gave away a Pontiac to each member of her studio audience--her entire audience--for free one day.
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.