The Quick 10: 10 Publicity Stunts Gone Bad


You’ve probably heard the old saying “any publicity is good publicity,” but these 10 stunts gone awry prove that’s not so.

1. A couple of days ago, two masked men wearing dark clothes ran through Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, brandishing “small metallic items” and yelling at employees to go to the lobby. Although it ended up being an internal communications stunt gone awry – the execs were just trying to get everyone to the lobby for an announcement about their new tablet – two arrests were made and one man was charged with a misdemeanor for “interfering with public duties” when he refused to give up his coworkers’ identities. It’s definitely a stunt gone wrong when the SWAT team shows up, I’d say.

2. Can you imagine if someone knocked down Stonehenge just to ensure their name was remembered in history? That’s pretty much what happened in 365 B.C., when Herostratus burned down one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis in Greece. It wasn’t supposed to work – authorities threatened to execute anyone who mentioned the arsonist’s name (he was also executed), but it did since that’s where we get the term “Herostratic fame,” which means fame achieved by any means just for the purpose of being famous.

3. This incident has been discussed to death, but it’s hard not to mention the Adult Swim bomb scare in a list like this. In 2007, small circuit boards depicting a character from Aqua Teen Hunger Force were placed in 10 cities across the U.S. to promote the movie based on the popular cartoon. Installed in high traffic areas, the boards would light up to reveal a Mooninite at a specified time. Instead, a citizen noticed one of the devices and called the police, concerned it was a bomb. In the end, it was the Boston police who received more bad publicity than Adult Swim or the Cartoon Network: bloggers ridiculed the bomb squad and even law enforcement in Seattle (one of the other nine cities targeted) said, “To us, they’re so obviously not suspicious … People don’t need to be concerned about this. These are cartoon characters giving the finger.”

4. That’s not the first time an entertainment industry PR stunt has scared citizens into thinking they were about to be blown to smithereens, though. Just a year before, devices that played the Mission: Impossible theme song were installed in newspaper racks in the L.A. area to promote the third installment of the Tom Cruise series. When some of them fell from the top of the box and landed on the stack of newspapers inside, panicked people called the police to report suspicious red boxes with wires. After the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department blew one up, they determined it was no threat.

5. As Herostratus showed us, PR stunts aren’t just modern-day affairs. In 1842, Honore de Balzac’s play opened to an empty house when his attempt to create a little excitement around the piece completely backfired. He spread the rumor that Les Les Ressources de Quinola was so amazing that the opening night was already sold out. Hearing that, his fans didn’t even bother trying to get tickets. Whoops.

6. It was an event that could have been similar to Great Molasses Flood of 1919: Snapple tried to make the world’s largest popsicle in Union Square in 2005. Unfortunately, the June day turned out to be a bit warmer than they had anticipated, and the 17.5-ton frozen treat melted, leaving a river of strawberry kiwi-flavored sludge flowing everywhere. Snapple later said that the popsicle had been designed to keep its shape for much longer, even in high temps, and they weren’t sure what went wrong.

7. If you’re putting together a scavenger hunt, here’s a tip: don’t put your grand prize in a historic cemetery. Dr Pepper learned that the hard way in 2007. They hid a coin in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, the final resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and many others. The cemetery could have been ravaged by treasure hunters if it hadn’t been for Mother Nature – the day the clue was released that tipped players off to the coin’s general location, the cemetery was closed due to heavy ice. That was when officials there caught wind of the scavenger hunt and started one of their own: to find it before the cemetery re-opened so the hunt would be called off. They found it, all right – the coin had been tucked behind a piece of slate that covered the entrance to a crypt that was nearly 200 years old. Dr Pepper’s parent company, Cadbury Schweppes, apologized for the inconvenience.

8. Your PR stunt definitely fails if the cost of the stunt ends up being more than what you’re trying to promote. That’s what happened with the 1987 movie Million Dollar Mystery. The plot centered around a missing bag of cash which was still missing at the end of the movie. The hook? There was really a bag of cash hidden somewhere in the United States, and clues to its whereabouts could be found in specially-marked Glad-Lock bag packages. The movie barely made more than a million at the box office; when you factor in what it cost to make the movie, you can see that this one was a huge flop for everyone involved. Well, everyone except for the lady who found the cash hidden in the bridge of the Statue of Liberty’s nose, that is.

9. Involving people in a publicity stunt against their will? Usually a bad idea. Involving people against their will and making them late for work? Definitely a bad idea. Doing both of those things while inadvertently publicizing that your product sucks, then getting arrested? That’s pretty much a worst-case scenario right there, and it’s exactly what happened to the L.A. band Imperial Stars last October. They parked a van across lanes of traffic on the 101 Freeway in Hollywood, causing a massive traffic jam that couldn’t be diffused until a tow truck showed up since the driver ran off with the keys. Los Angelenos were enraged and even took to the band’s YouTube video to leave comments like, “your song is terrible, i listened to 10 seconds before I vomited.” (That was one of the nicer comments.)

10. Apparently French police don’t view Robocop as one of their own. When the movie’s sequel came out in 1990, an actor in the full-on Robocop outfit patrolled up and down the Champs-Elysees in an American squad car. When the real police showed up, he couldn’t produce I.D. and was promptly thrown in jail.

I want to share this one even though I’m not classifying it as a failure – it completely and utterly horrified me, which I think was the point: Living Chucky Dolls Invade Times Square.

Live Smarter
Nervous About Asking for a Job Referral? LinkedIn Can Now Do It for You

For most people, asking for a job referral can be daunting. What if the person being approached shoots you down? What if you ask the "wrong" way? LinkedIn, which has been aggressively establishing itself as a catch-all hub for employment opportunities, has a solution, as Mashable reports.

The company recently launched "Ask for a Referral," an option that will appear to those browsing job listings. When you click on a job listed by a business that also employs one of your LinkedIn first-degree connections, you'll have the opportunity to solicit a referral from that individual.

The default message that LinkedIn creates is somewhat generic, but it hits the main topics—namely, prompting you to explain how you and your connection know one another and why you'd be a good fit for the position. If you're the one being asked for a referral, the site will direct you to the job posting and offer three prompts for a response, ranging from "Sure…" to "Sorry…".

LinkedIn says the referral option may not be available for all posts or all users, as the feature is still being rolled out. If you do see the option, it will likely pay to take advantage of it: LinkedIn reports that recruiters who receive both a referral and a job application from a prospective hire are four times more likely to contact that individual.

[h/t Mashable]

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."


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