The Quick 10: 10 Publicity Stunts Gone Bad

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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.

February 18, 2011 - 6:50pm
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