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6 Promotions That Didn't Quite Work Out

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Marketing has come a long way in the last two centuries, but it's hard to get people's attention these days. Sometimes, you've got to do something big and outrageous and potentially dangerous, and sometimes, those things don't always work out exactly the way you'd planned. Like employing a guerilla marketing firm to promote a cartoon movie and inadvertently causing a citywide panic (see previous post: "Innocent Ideas That Prompted Mass Hysteria.")

With that in mind, here are a few of history's better bad marketing moves. Feel free to file these under "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

1. Sponsoring Headstones

Gaming companies are always pushing the bounds of bad taste in their products (Manhunt 2, anyone?), but in 2002, Acclaim Entertainment shocked the UK when it announced it would pay mourning families to place small billboards on their relatives' headstones advertising the game Shadowman 2. The company thought it was an appropriate place to advertise the "dark, gory" game, which it billed as a "journey to the Deathside." Acclaim later said the offer might "particularly interest poorer families." The Church of England responded by saying they had a hard enough time dealing with those plastic flowers in graveyards, and by no account would it allow video game advertisement on headstones. End of story.

2. Chocolate Bombs

Back in the fall of 1926, a Berlin chocolate company made international headlines after police shut down their marketing campaign—because citizens were complaining of bruises. According to a contemporary AP article in the New York Times, the company had been sending up two planes every Sunday to bombard crowds of people with foil-wrapped chocolates from a height of about 100 feet. "The aerial gifts were particularly objectionable to bald-headed men, whose custom it is to stroll with heads uncovered on the theory that the sun's rays stimulate the growth of hair. Mothers complained that children fighting for the prizes ruined their Sunday clothes."

3. Snapple Sees Marketing Stunt Melt Away

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You could see the logic here: What's better than a popsicle on a hot day? Nothing. Just maybe not a 25-foot, 17.5 ton popsicle. Snapple found that out the hard way in 2005 when the company unveiled their gargantuan kiwi-strawberry popsicle in the middle of Times Square, which promptly started to melt in the 80-degree heat, losing a torrent of sticky kiwi-strawberry concentrate all over the streets.

4. Molson to College Kids: "˜Drink up!'

It's not much of a secret that college and beer go together like, well, college and beer, but Molson brewing company found itself facing a whole poop-storm of controversy when it tried to capitalize on that fact. In 2007, the company launched an online marketing campaign targeting Canadian college kids, asking them to post their best party pictures on Facebook in a contest to determine Canada's top party school. The grand prize was a spring break trip to Cancun for the winner and four friends.

Parents and school officials were not pleased. One school official plainly told The Globe and Mail he was disgusted, while others demanded that Molson axe the campaign, claiming it not only targeted underage drinkers, but also promoted irresponsible drinking in a big way. The winning photo, they reasoned, would have to be pretty outrageous to merit a trip to Cancun.

Molson, bowing to the pressure, pulled the campaign.

5. Escape Artist Turned Marketer Has Brush With Death

In 1990, magician-cum-marketer Jim McCafferty wanted to launch his marketing and brand consulting business with a big time attention-grabbing stunt—and nearly died in the process. The idea was that McCafferty, straitjacketed, would be locked in a metal cage, welded shut on all sides. The cage would then be hoisted by a crane 300 feet off the ground and McCafferty would have two minutes to get out of the straitjacket, out of the cage, and attach himself to a harness before the timer released the cage and it plummeted to the ground.

McCafferty got out of the straitjacket with little problem, but found himself stuck in the cage. With just 10 seconds left on the clock, he managed to scramble out and onto the roof. As he fumbled with the harness, the timer ran out, and the cage fell 60 feet before he was able to click in to the harness and arrest his fall. McCafferty was taken away by ambulance, suffering from first- and second-degree rope burns. All was not lost, however: The crowd loved the stunt, thinking that McCafferty's brush with death was simply part of the act and McCafferty has gone on to run his successful million-dollar company.

6. Arrested for Vodafone

This would not be the first time anyone got naked in the name of advertisement, but it was certainly one of the few times anyone was arrested for it. In 2002, two brave young men raced across the rugby pitch during a match between New Zealand and Australia, clad in naught but the Vodafone logo. The two were caught, mid-streak, and escorted off the field by police. Vodafone later apologized for having "encouraged" the duo to do their naked run and later donated £30,000 to a nonprofit campaign to reduce sports injuries.

[Many thanks go to Entrepreneur magazine, whose compilation of PR stunts helped pad our list.]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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