12 outrageous PR stunts—and the lessons learned

From flash mobs to Taco Bell’s ‘purchase’ of the Liberty Bell, here are key lessons from outsized public relations campaigns.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

stunt (n.) “feat to attract attention,” 1878, Amer.Eng. college sports slang, of uncertain origin. Speculated to be a variant of colloq. stump “dare, challenge” (1871)

A PR stunt is a daring or challenging feat to attract media attention. Pioneered by the likes of P.T. Barnum, and mastered by folks like Richard Branson, the stunt has become a tool to generate publicity—lots of it. So what can we learn from 12 of the most outrageous stunts? Let’s have a look: 1. Frozen Grand Central The group “Improv Everywhere” masterminded this stunt in Grand Central Terminal. It inspired a number of “flash mobs” in its wake and has garnered more than 28 million YouTube views. Lesson: The three keys to a great stunt: location, location, location. Improv uses Grand Central Terminal, an iconic commuter hub in the media capital of the world. 2. British Airways can’t get it up! In the words of Virgin’s Richard Branson:

“We have fun competing, and we sometimes do it with a smile. When British Airways managed to sponsor the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames, they called a massive press conference. There was just one problem: They couldn’t get the wheel up; it was lying on the ground. “So we scrambled and got an airship [blimp], and as the wheel lay on the ground with the press watching—they had been kept waiting for seven hours—the airship flew over the wheel with a huge sign saying “BA can’t get it up.” This is the stuff that makes people smile. It is done in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it is very much part of the Virgin brand. It is this kind of fun-spirited competition that helps build a brand.”

Lesson: Timing is everything. Speed trumps genius, and opportunity favors the bold. 3. Pandas in Paris The World Wildlife Fund placed 1,600 papier-mâché pandas in front of the Eiffel Tower. The number represented the number of pandas alive in the world and drew attention to the issues about their native habitat in China. Lesson: Strength in numbers. Bring an idea or a number to life in a compelling way. (Image via hc gilge) 4. Dr Pepper and Guns N’ Roses Dr Pepper promised to give everyone in America a free soda if Guns N’ Roses released its long-awaited and much overdue “Chinese Democracy” album by the end of 2008. (The album hit stores in November of that year.) Lessons: Take advantage of an existing meme. Fans had wondered whether the album (17 years in the making) would ever be released. However, if you make the offer, be sure to have the ability to make good on it. The brand drew significant scrutiny for its fulfillment efforts. 5. Best PR job in the world With this video posted to its website, Tourism Queensland in Australia kicked off its campaign to find a caretaker for Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef: According to Tourism Queensland, “To date it’s generated more than $70 million in publicity value through TV, radio, and newspaper coverage, as well as special online discussion groups, bulletin boards, blogs, and websites with applicants critiquing their competition, having detailed discussions, and swapping ideas and tips.” Lesson: Make it social, and let consumers spread the word. 6. Face from Space How do you launch a new logo for KFC in a way that transcends language? You build the world’s largest logo near Area 51 in Nevada. You then shoot it with the Google Earth satellite. This program generated more than 600 million global media impressions. Here is the time lapse footage of the building process. (Watch the end of the video for an almost cautionary tale involving filming with a helicopter.)

Lesson: Create a strong visual to transcend language. 7. Taco Bell buys the Liberty Bell Playing an April Fools’ Day prank in 1996, Taco Bell took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and five other major newspapers. The ad read:

“In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country’s most historic treasures…”

It resulted in public outrage and hordes of press. All in good fun, right? Lesson: Play off a holiday—in a tongue-in-cheek way. 8. Michael Jackson and HIStory on the Thames Sony created a 33-foot Michael Jackson statue and floated it under Tower Bridge in London. It was one of 10 statues placed around Europe to launch the late King of Pop’s album “HIStory.” Lesson: Build it “larger than life,” and they will cover it. 9. Jerry Seinfeld and the launch of “Bee Movie” For the launch of “Bee Movie,” Jerry Seinfeld created history at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 by launching himself from the world-famous Carlton Hotel, across four lanes of traffic and the beach, to land on a pier. Chris Rock emceed the action. Lesson: Use a celebrity for a built-in media hook. Making a grand entrance or reveal is essential. 10. Oprah and the G6 Every member of Oprah Winfrey’s studio audience—276 people to be exact—received a new car, courtesy of Pontiac. Lesson: Go over the top with a clever “branded act of kindness.” 11. Whopper freakout What happens when you take an American icon off the menu for one day? Roll video: Lesson: People don’t know what they’ve got ’til it’s gone. 12. How to launch the name of your company GotVMail changed its name to Grasshopper and, to mark the rebranding effort, sent 5,000 FedEx packages to the most influential people in America. The boxes contained 25,000 chocolate-covered grasshoppers. Lesson: The road to mainstream media can be driven through online influencers. Stan Phelps is chief solutions officer at Synergy Events. He blogs at Marketing Lagniappe and is currently writing his first book, What’s Your Purple Goldfish? A version of this story appeared on the blog 12 Most.

Topics: PR

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