Marketing 101: 11 Outrageous Publicity Stunts is about shock promotion and marketing tactics, with some examples of the most out-there stunts ever!
What is a publicity stunt?
A publicity stunt is, by definition, an extraordinary action carried out to grab the public’s attention. They are typically created to support a brand, movement, individual, or group.
In marketing, a publicity stunt is normally an event that is planned in advance as part of a marketing strategy.
Successful publicity stunts should be newsworthy and offer photo, video, and sound bite opportunities.
By staging these types of stunts, marketers can often gain some form of control over what is reported about their business in the media.
How are they used?
The importance of publicity stunts lies in generating free, far-reaching news coverage and public awareness for the concept.
They can form part of an overarching campaign and be teased across channels, including ads, digital display, press releases, print materials, and websites. They could take place at an established event or in a public space, incorporating multi-media modes and emerging technologies.
Publicity stunts come in many forms, often involving heavy branding. They’re frequently employed by politicians and celebrities to boost their public image. Sometimes stunts can be executed in a timely manner to “jump” on a hot trend or real-time event.
In marketing, publicity stunts are often interlinked with guerrilla marketing tactics; however, guerrilla marketing usually takes place on a more local level and with a more subtle approach than a publicity stunt. But there is a grey area where the two styles overlap.
Publicity stunts are more relevant than ever these days, with social media instantly breaking news and sending information worldwide in seconds. The problem is that the web is awash with publicity seekers, so even a well-designed campaign can get lost in the crowd.
The French saying, “Succès de scandale” (“success from scandal”), is believed to have inspired the famous phrase “no publicity is bad publicity,” and in many instances it rings true. However, sometimes publicity stunts do go wrong, backfiring on their orchestrators and making an entity memorable for the wrong reasons.
To see some famous, nostalgic examples – and learn some key publicity stunt takeaways – read on for 11 Outrageous Publicity Stunts!
11. KFC’s logo is visible from space
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is known to have fun with their campaigns and often uses the widely recognised face of their founder, Colonel Sanders. They’ve used Sanders in a wide range of wacky promotional activities, including spoof movies, comics, and joke merchandise.
In 2006, the fried chicken giant made one of their boldest moves by building a KFC logo that would be the first ever fast-food logo visible from space. “If there are extra-terrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp.
The logo was built over six days in the Mojave Desert, Nevada, using 65,000 one-foot-square tiles. In a possible combined effort, it was Google’s satellites that confirmed the logo was visible from space, with many people opening Google Maps to see it.
Takeaway: What sounds like a bold idea can come to fruition with perseverance.
10. Coca-Cola Christmas Trucks
Back in 1995, Coca-Cola unknowingly changed the advertising landscape. They released a Christmas TV commercial featuring festively lit Coca-Cola trucks passing through winter scenes, accompanied by the jingle, “Holidays are coming.” The ads were hugely successful and became synonymous with the holiday season.
Over the following years, Coca-Cola commissioned the customization of hundreds of real trucks and began taking them on tours across countries, often pausing at iconic locations for publicity photos.
The stunts have become a central piece in Coca-Cola’s campaigns, and fans can now even spend the night in one. #holidaysarecoming trends online each year, and families anticipate the arrival of the trucks. Many businesses have tried to replicate their winning formula: striking visuals, a catchy tune, and emotional sentiment.
Takeaway: A simple concept can change a business’ marketing strategy forever.
9. Katie Price’s book launches
Katie Price is one of the UK’s most talked-about celebrities. Never afraid of any publicity, the model developed her notoriety throughout the 2000s.
One of her many business endeavours was becoming an “author,” releasing over 30 books while honestly admitting that she hadn’t written a word. But she knew her strengths, and those were using her body, face, and a memorable stunt to make a splash. For each of her book releases, she devised a launch activity that would guarantee the press talked.
Some of her most memorable stunts include riding a rearing black stallion, dressing as a horse, and being carried on a chariot. Price had the last laugh and was listed among the top 100 best-selling UK authors of the decade between 2000 and 2009, with three million book sales.
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to dabble in the fun and flamboyant.
8. Uber’s luxury travel
Uber Technologies was first founded in 2009, and since then the company has taken publicity stunts to new heights. The convenient transportation app has provided several mischievous campaigns over the years, offering luxury travel at knockdown prices.
The first stunt, in 2012, took place in New York and gave Uber users the opportunity to take a car ride from their pickup location and then a helicopter flight to their destination.
The popularity of the stunt has inspired several others, including an Uber-ordered yacht service in Cape Town, helicopter rides in Sao Paulo, and private jets to the Cannes Film Festival. The film festival stunt drew extra attention because it was interpreted as a provocation by the French government, which was considering restricting companies like Uber.
Takeaway: Taking a financial hit to provide a one-off service could pay off in the long term.
7. Lynx shower world record
Lynx is a men’s grooming brand that specialises in a range of uniquely scented deodorants and shower gels. Every year, the brand introduces new fragrances to be used across product lines.
In the past, their name was synonymous with “lad culture,” and they were renowned for risqué, sexually charged advertising. In 2011, Lynx outdid themselves with a campaign that would go down in history: setting the Guinness World Record for the most people showering together.
The stunt took place on Bournemouth Beach, UK, where Lynx erected a 19-foot-tall shower to hold 152 participants, including paid models and promotion workers. A video of the stunt went viral, garnering nationwide coverage and demonstrating how a brand can build on its already famed qualities.
Take away: Play to your strengths; if the formula isn’t broken, why fix it?
6. Virgin’s London Eye airship
The global brand superpower, Virgin, is owned by Sir Richard Branson. Branson has never been publicity shy. He has personally participated in many of the company’s jaw-dropping stunts, including flying across land in a hot air balloon and bungee jumping from a casino.
Europe’s tallest observation wheel, the London Eye, was due to be erected in September 1999 and was sponsored by Virgin Atlantic’s rival British Airways (BA). But a technical failure on the day halted the unveiling, and the London Eye remained grounded.
As the world’s media watched and waited, Virgin dispatched an airship to hover above the site, displaying a naughty innuendo that read “BA Can’t Get It Up!” The timely stunt stole British Airways’ thunder and made headline news.
Takeaway: A cheeky and timely reaction could divert attention your way.
5. Boris Johnson on a zip wire
Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, has been known to make a number of ill-timed gaffes and insensitive remarks that elicit reactions.
In 2012, the then mayor was on a promotional trail to publicise the City of London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games. On a visit to Victoria Park, Johnson was asked to try out a newly installed zip wire. Never one to miss out on a photo opportunity, he jumped at the chance.
The stunt failed in an epic manner when Johnson became stuck on the wire. Helplessly, he hung for 10 minutes before being hauled to safety by the event’s organisers. The mayor tried to laugh off the mishap, but observers reported that he was visibly annoyed, no doubt feeling like a publicity buffoon.
Takeaway: If an opportunity presents itself, weigh up the pros, cons, and potential outcomes.
4. The Sweetie Salad Spartan Army
In 2015, Sweetie Salad, a start-up business in China that specialised in salad jar delivery, caused dramatic scenes with an outlandish stunt that went awry.
To celebrate a landmark in their launch, Sweetie Salad employed 100 male models dressed as Spartans to parade around the streets of Beijing’s most trendy district. The stunt went wrong when the conservative Chinese police descended on the “army,” tackling them to the ground and arresting the models for disturbing public order.
The subsequent fallout resulted in Sweetie Salads issuing a statement, blaming their lack of marketing experience as a start-up for the misguided spectacle. Despite the failure, the business went on to achieve rapid growth in a short time; whether or not this was down to the Spartan stunt remains a mystery.
Takeaway: Even if the stunt doesn’t go as planned, it could still generate wide coverage.
3. Madonna and the Princesses of Pop
Pop queen Madonna tried to win the public’s favour at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards by enlisting Missy Elliott, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera for her headlining awards show performance. The four artists had, at that time, each experienced some form of radio censorship.
Their wedding-themed performance saw Aguilera and Spears appear as brides before they were joined by their “groom,” Madonna. Their big publicity stunt, pulled out of the top hat, was for each of the pop princesses to kiss Madonna. They were then joined by Elliott, and the performance ended with them all chanting a line from Madonna’s song that was intended as a blow to the radio industry.
The world’s media exploded; however, rather than focusing on the radio censorship issue, they mainly discussed the shedding of Spears’ clean-cut image and the faux same-sex shenanigans.
Take away: Beware, because sometimes a publicity stunt can distract from the intended cause.
2. Lil Nas X Satan Shoes
Rapper and singer Lil Nas X became a viral music sensation in 2019 with the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Chart’s longest-ever running number 1.
The artist has since become established, but controversy surrounding his sexuality has ruffled feathers in far-right communities. So, in 2021, he released a new single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” accompanied by a controversial video that depicted loaded, biblical imagery.
He took publicity for the single release one step further with a collaboration with the art collective MSCHF. Together, they released modified Nike Air Max 97s called “Satan Shoes,” which contained “1 drop of human blood.” 666 pairs of the shoes were produced, and the collection sold out within a minute.
Subsequently, Nike filed a lawsuit. But the stunt caused a stir and helped Lil Nas X accumulate 800 million views of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on YouTube.
Takeaway: Sometimes collaboration is the key to generating publicity.
1. Red Bull’s skydive from the edge of space
Red Bull is one of the most daring brands in terms of marketing, with their “Red Bull gives you wings” slogan underpinning many of their activities. They have paid huge sums to well-known daredevils to take part in branded exploits.
They exceeded themselves in 2012, when they persuaded Austrian BASE jumper and skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, to skydive to Earth from space in one of the most daring stunts ever attempted.
Baumgartner was sent 24 miles (39 km) up into the stratosphere in a helium balloon-lifted capsule and then skydived back to Earth.
The 300-man, $30 million Red Bull Stratos operation was watched by tens of millions of people on over 170 world media outlets. It’s regarded as the greatest publicity stunt ever, solidifying Red Bull’s place in history.
Takeaway: What seems like a huge investment could prove priceless in the end.
Sometimes a well-thought-out publicity stunt can go miles in terms of coverage and brand awareness. They can make a lasting impression and remain relevant for years. They can be equipped to play an intrinsic role in far-reaching, cross-channel marketing campaigns and show your business in a different light.
But always approach them with caution because, in the modern digital world, it is very difficult to erase any failings from the internet. Sometimes publicity stunts can also be too blatant, counter-productive, and fail to achieve their aims.
Did you remember any of these 11 outrageous publicity stunts? Did you spot the guerrilla-style campaign? Tell me which was most memorable in the comments!
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All text © J. Thomson, 2022