"There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute."
Publicity stunts are not new. The quote, attributed to lovable 19th century con man and circus owner, P.T. Barnum, reflected his philosophy of doing everything he could to put money into his own pocket. In pre-circus days, he ran a New York museum and, in order to sell ever more tickets, he staged outrageous stunts, including the exhibition of a fabricated creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish that Barnum proclaimed was a real mermaid, and a carved gypsum giant that he claimed was a fossilized man. He had stolen the idea from a chap named George Hull who had first staged an exhibition of a carved statue that he touted as the fossilized remains of a giant man from prehistory. Apparently, people bought all this – for a while.
Cut to 20th century America. Hollywood’s spin on the publicity stunt was the 1997 movie Wag the Dog. In the film, a has been film director (Dustin Hoffman) and a ruthless White House spin doctor (Robert De Niro) stage a fake war in Albania, complete with footage shot on sound stages and moving theme songs. The point? To draw election year attention away from a presidential sex scandal, wherein it seemed the Prez may have gotten naughty with a minor in the Oval Office. The war is staged to strike home the “reality” of war. At one point, chased by the CIA (who are trying to uncover the presidential wrongdoings) and trying to make a convincing hero out of a convicted rapist (played deliciously by Woody Harrelson), Dustin Hoffman has a fit and shouts, “This war isn’t over ‘til I say it’s over. This is my picture.” So convincing is the scheme that when Woody Harrelson's character dies in a plane crash, he is buried with full military honors. And the President gets re-elected.
So history and fiction have plenty of crazy examples of publicity stunts gone crazy. But there have been times in recent history when the lines reality was stranger than fiction, when stunts by clever marketers, spin-doctors or publicists were cooked up to garner attention from the world's media, with great success. These are 10 of the biggest or most successful publicity stunts ever to have been pulled off.
9 Calendar Girls
8 Dog Do in the Mail
7 The North Pole is Melting
6 Submarine in the Streets of Milan
4 The Blair Witch Project
3 Hold Your Wee for Wii
2 Extreme Scrabble
1 1. Strato Red Bull
We know Red Bull is about getting a rush, but this stunt is outrageous. In October of 2012, they hired skydiver Felix Baumgartner to fly a helium balloon 39 km’s (that’s 24 miles) into the stratosphere. What next? Dressed in a pressure suit, he jumped and went into free fall, eventually using a parachute to get back to earth. Apparently he broke through the speed of sound barrier. The sound was recorded. No repeat performance is planned.
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