The 5 Most Impressively Insane Publicity Stunts

One of the maxims of marketing is that an ounce of publicity is worth a ton of advertising. Meaning, what you read in the newspaper has much greater influence on your opinion than the ad opposite the article. What a friend tells you has even more impact than that, and that's why Facebook has been lying to you about what your friends like. Advertising has invaded every inch of our lives.

From product placement in movies to video screens in taxis to animated messages on NYC subway tunnel walls, our lives are saturated with messages designed to make us buy one thing over another. Five thousand advertisements a day for a city-dweller, according to the Yankelovich marketing firm. Five thousand each day – that's more than three a minute in any twenty-four hour period, and we're not being advertised to in our sleep. Yet.

Yes, we're saturated by advertising and so we don't take it seriously. Every ad claims their product is the best, the newest, the greatest value. But we know they just want our money. Of course they're going to make big bold claims. And that's where PR comes in.

We should all have a natural skepticism about any corporation's motives. McDonald's doesn't exist to feed the poor, Pepsi doesn't crank out can after can of acidic sugar water to make the world's children happy and DeBeers doesn't give a damn about your wedding plans. They want your money. They need it to survive. They need it on a massive scale, and when advertising doesn't work they pull out the big guns. They go to publicity. They get themselves in the news, on talk shows, in public venues big and small to get in your face and make sure you remember them the next time you have to make a choice with your wallet.

PR is designed to break down the barrier between customer and product, make you remember the product and leave a positive impression on you. And that's why, when the cost of advertising is very high and the cost of a newspaper article is essentially free, companies will do almost anything to get into the news.

Some PR is designed to amaze. Some is designed to entertain. All is designed to capture your attention and memory. And companies will do some wild stuff to achieve that laudable goal...


6 The Pepsi Max AR Bus Stop

AR means Augmented Reality, and it's one of the most exciting new developments in computer imaging technology. Actual and potential uses include translating street signs from foreign languages, overlaying driving directions on your view of the street and displaying names of strangers with facial recognition software. Also, you can convince a bunch of unsuspecting Brits that they're about to be attacked by a tiger, abducted by aliens or hit by a man dangling from balloons.

Pepsi turned one window of a London bus shelter into a virtual window. By displaying a live video feed of the street from a camera in the wall, then superimposing amazing footage over it, they created live action scenes of incredible events to shock and amaze people waiting for the buss. The footage is great – people react with amazement, fear, wonder. Pepsi got into the news and were remembered for a little bit longer than a regular old 30 second TV spot.

5 The Crash At Crush


Ever heard an event described as a train wreck? As in, “Jeremy trying to get that girl's number last night was like a train wreck. It was horrible, but I couldn't look away.” Disaster and action movies fascinate us for a reason: Big crashes are transfixing. How could they not be? Just like dolphins keep sharks in their view, we are hardwired to keep danger in sight. One enterprising man understood that as well as PT Barnum understood spectacle and decided to put it to good use.

That man was William G. Crush. He worked for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad at a time when they had about fifty unused old locomotives just lying around turning into expensive rust. Can you see where this is going?

The year: 1890. The place: Crush, a site created specifically for the event that – because of the event – became the second largest town in Texas. Between thirty and forty thousand people turned out to watch two steam locomotives power toward one another at top speed and collide. It was to be a spectacle beyond compare, the event of a lifetime in an era when people still quilted for entertainment and bicycles were a novelty. It's not entirely clear what the railroad expected to accomplish other than to put on a hell of a show and sell a bunch of train tickets – which they certainly did – but no one would forget the KATY line for a long, long time.

Especially because the crash went about as well as you could expect a train crash to go. The trains smashed into one another at about 45 MPH and both boilers exploded, killing three onlooker and wounding six. Concerned festival-goers soberly ensured everyone was OK and … just kidding! They picked through the wreckage for souvenirs.

4 Lifelock CEO Gives Out His Social Security Number

Todd Davis combined an advertisement with a PR stunt and it really backfired. Ostensibly bent on proving the reliability of his company's services he decided to put his social security number in his advertisements and basically challenge the world to defeat Life Lock. And defeat it they did.

In Todd's defense, he did answer the logical challenge to his bold claims. Life Lock claimed it could protect anyone from identity theft. He must have been asked to prove it a dozen times. Ironic that it was disproven at least a dozen and one times, that we know about. But hey, you run a dojo and you have to fight challengers. You run Life Lock, you have to fight identity thieves.

Todd ran an ad campaign guaranteeing that no one could defeat their security services. To prove it he put his own social security number on billboards, web graphics and even television. There weren't any huge thefts discovered – the biggest being a couple of thousands of dollars on an AT&T cellular bill – but he did end up getting fined twelve million dollars by the federal trade commission for deceptive advertising.

I'd like to think, however, that Todd Davis is not a regular old CEO making audacious claims about his company's abilities. I'd like to think that he's a genius. I mean, he posted his social security number online. Couldn't he now claim that virtually any of the purchases made since then were really made by identity thieves?

3 The Taco Liberty Bell


Taco Bell, my favorite bowel disruption chain, has always had a knack for capturing the public's imagination. From the yo quiero chihuahua to their #fourthmeal campaign, something about the world's biggest taco chain just seems to go viral at every turn. But one April 1st they maybe went a little too far.

There are some people who just can't take a joke when it comes to the venerable artifacts of their homelands creation. To Americans like that, who have no funny bone for independence and no end of contempt for big business, the idea that Taco Bell would buy the Liberty Bell and rename it the Taco Liberty Bell was not a funny April Fool's Day prank but just another sign of corporate greed gone wild.

Among those concerned citizens were senators Bill Bradley and J. James Exon, whose aides called the National Park Service to inquire if the sale were legitimate. One could only imagine the fallout of the NPS had been in on the joke!

In terms of publicity stunts it was a great success, generating lots of attention and many grinning, shaking heads. In my personal opinion they should have gone a step further and added a Liberty Bowl Taco Salad to their menu.

2 The Mission Impossible Bomb Scare

Hollywood is known for producing some pretty silly stunts, and that's to be expected. They're in the entertainment business. But the marketing for Mission Impossible 3 had one big pratfall that can only be described as laughably, dangerously idiotic in the post 911 age of mass paranoia. I am speaking of placing fake bombs throughout Los Angeles.

OK, OK they weren't meant to be fake bombs. Supposedly. But what would you say would be the predictable result of placing customer-triggered electronic devices in random Los Angeles Times vendor boxes? Obviously they weren't planning on the devices going unnoticed. Obviously they didn't expect people to randomly dance to the Mission Impossible theme song, the song that was played when someone opened the vendor box.

And, just as obviously, they must have known what a bunch of wires and circuitry would look like to the media-drenched residents of Los Angeles. The predictable result happened. People were terrified and they called the cops. The unpredictable thing here was that people still bought paper newspapers in 2006.

Now, you may be saying, this just shows how paranoid Americans are these days. I mean, come on, a coin machine starts playing music and people freak out? How frightened are Californians? It's my contention that the devices were meant to be scary. The producers wanted the movie to get into the news. How can I say that? Well, first of all, the devices looked like they were meant to be hidden... but they were in plain site, poorly hidden and bright freaking red with wires protruding. That just says threatening in every language. Still think I'm being a reactionary? The devices looked scary enough that the Los Angeles County Sheriffs department blew up one of the vending machines thinking it contained a bomb.

1 Red Bull's Space Dive


This is easily the most insane, and awesome, entry on this list. And of course it comes from Red Bull, a company who makes its name exploiting a culture of adventurous awesomeness. The same company that sponsors an event (the Red Bull Flugtag) where people try to make ridiculous contraptions fly off of ramps just recently sent a man hurtling from space in a brazen attempt to murder him and take credit for the biggest blood pancake in human history. OK, not exactly. What they really did was have Felix Baumgartner jump from a 25 mile high balloon.

25 miles is higher than jets fly. It's above every cloud. It is where I would have left a panic poop. But it's where Felix looked down at the curvature of the earth and said, “Meh.”

In the name of bitter, caffeinated stupidity-fuel, Felix fell downward for four minutes straight breaking both the free fall speed record and the sound barrier. Without any kind of propulsion and apparently a similar lack of common sense or fear.

The stunt was webcast to captivated viewers worldwide and Red Bull maintained its status as a top promoter of high-excitement sports.

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