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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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