The desire to make it big can drive people to do a whole host of interesting and downright bizarre things. Big stunts work: that’s why so many use gimmicks and outlandish ideas to boost their media presence.
In some cases, however, PR stunts are all flash and not enough common sense.
Perhaps one of the most infamous PR stunts in recent history is the story of 6-year-old Falcon Heene—or “Balloon Boy,” as media dubbed him. In 2009, Falcon’s parents, Richard and Mayumi, placed a desperate call to their local law enforcement claiming their son had floated away on a 20-foot-wide balloon Richard had invented. The balloon traveled for over 50 miles and eventually landed while people all over the country watched the incident on live TV. Upon its landing, law enforcement discovered the boy was not inside. Instead, he was found later that day in his family’s attic.
The Heenes certainly got their 15 minutes of fame, but perhaps not in the fashion they had hoped. Instead, the event is believed to be a pre-planned publicity stunt. When interviewed on live TV, the boy commented that he had done it “for the show,” leading investigators to believe his parents had set up the entire thing.
“Balloon Boy” and his family certainly aren’t the first to have a publicity stunt go terribly wrong. In fact, professional publicity representatives deal with unplanned catastrophes day in and day out.
Why Publicity Stunts Go Wrong
The nature of publicity stunts is exactly what sets people up for disaster, according to Rhonda Rees, who owns her own public relations company and has authored an award-winning book, Profit and Prosper with Public Relations: Insider Secrets to Make You a Success.
When a personality or company creates an advertising campaign, they have a guarantee that their product will be advertised as promised in a paid contract. Publicity events are different, according to Rees, because of the involvement of the media.
“No matter how you plan for news coverage, outside forces can sweep your stories off the media’s radar,” she explains. “World events, the economy, earthquakes, and other natural disasters are important news items that can dominate the airwaves and change history at a moment’s notice.”
Additionally, publicity stunts rely on not just the media, but often the personalities that are helping to launch a product or event into the public eye. For instance, companies have dealt with the predicament time and time again when they have partnered with a celebrity to promote their product, only to learn that the celebrity is involved in a scandal.
Tiger Woods is perhaps one of the most infamous examples of this. When news of his rather extensive marital infidelity broke in late 2009, many companies cut ties with the golfer—he lost long-standing partnerships with Gillette and Gatorade, to name only two. Nike even cut Woods’ $20 million deal in half for two years as punishment, per Fortune.
Instances like these force companies to reevaluate how they plan to promote their products and how they can adjust their alignments, according to Rees. Flexibility is without a doubt an important skill for anyone working in public relations, especially when brand spokespeople involve themselves in misconduct.
“If you’re a PR person planning a special event and inviting a celebrity like Kevin Spacey to be there, you’ve invited media, and then a scandal breaks out with [him]. Do you distance yourself?” asks Rees. She says PR firms put crisis plans in place in case things like this occur.
Sometimes, a publicity snafu is due to poor planning and bad timing, according to Rees. Publicity reps have to be prepared for anything and flexible if something changes at the last minute. And, perhaps most importantly, they have to consider the timing of their stunt and how it will be received by the media and the public.
Here are a few examples of publicity stunts gone wrong…
The World’s Stickiest Mess
In the case of the world’s largest popsicle, for instance, it’s difficult to understand exactly why this publicity stunt ever made it past a brainstorm session.
In 2005, Snapple set out to create the world’s largest popsicle. They transported their 17 ½ ton popsicle by freezer truck to Union Square in Manhattan…only for the popsicle to begin melting shortly after.
“Snapple officials first started to worry when the pink liquid began to flow onto East 17th Street,” wrote Anthony Ramirez for The New York Times. “Soon pedestrians were fleeing in not-quite terror, fire trucks were converging and the police were closing off streets to contain the publicity stunt gone wrong.”
Fearing structural failure, they raised the monstrosity to a “crowd disappointing 25-degree angle,” and then they trucked it away.
This event required involvement of local emergency services in order to remove the sticky, melted popsicle juice from all over Union Square.
A Super Failure
In other cases, a publicity stunt is simply poorly timed, according to Rees. And perhaps ill-advised all around.
In May 2013, for instance, a Jefferson City, Missouri, movie theater promoting the Iron Man 3 premier failed to consider how their planned stunt would go over in light of recent events. Actors were paid to dress as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, faux-weapons and all, according to an apology made by theater after the fact. Instead of stirring up more excitement for the film, multiple calls were made to the police.
The publicity stunt was timed poorly, of course, since the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, had taken place less than a year before during the premiere of Dark Knight Rises.
Everyone Loves a Good Deal
Some publicity stunts, on the other hand, aren’t planned with a good consideration of just how popular the stunt will be. In these cases, the organizations throwing the the stunt simply aren’t prepared for the public response.
One of the most popular failed promotions took place in 1974 when Municipal Stadium offered unlimited $.10 brews at a game. Instead of the sold out crowd and night of fun they expected, the game ended in forfeit. Fans simply drank too much, and a riot broke out in the ninth inning in response to how the game was playing out. They stormed the field and the game ended in chaos.
Interestingly enough, Cleveland continued to plan $.10 drink nights after the the riot without any problems, according to MLB.com.
Similarly, in an effort to raise funds for The Boys and Girls Club, Knott’s Berry Farm Amusement Park in Buena Park, California offered $.05 admission on May 5, 1999. Employees closed the gates closed at 10 a.m. after admitting 32,000 people.
“Had there been Facebook, Twitter, Instagram … they could have immediately posted information in real time before things got so out-of-hand,” says Rees. “Perhaps they may have also known what to expect in terms of crowd size in advance.”
Instead, Knott’s Berry Farm found themselves with thousands of people outside the park, angry that they weren’t able to attend the event. Fights broke out and the Buena Park Police were called in to manage the crowds.
Knott’s Berry Farm raised $10,000 for The Boys and Girls Club that day. Unfortunately, they spent $13,000 reimbursing the Buena Park Police force for the amount of overtime put in by their officers while managing the riots at the park.
Another famous publicity failure took place in April 1986, when Geraldo Rivera took park in a live, two-hour TV program on the opening of mobster Al Capone’s vault. The vault, located in Lexington Hotel in Chicago, was set to be torn down as the building was being turned into a women’s museum. The idea was formulated to open the vault for the first time on live TV.
… you can bet that people would be commenting on this show’s initial disaster [if it happened today], and who knows what could have happened with Geraldo’s career.
The program lasted for two hours, complete with interviews with people who had known Capone when he was alive. It received record breaking views.
When the time came to open the vault, the entire nation learned it was completely empty, a fact no one had considered a possibility when planning the program, according to Chicago Tribune.
Although it may seem like a disaster at face value, Rees felt otherwise. Sure, while it was initially very disappointing, the show received great ratings and Rivera’s career barely took a hit. And in the present day, things would be much worse.
“We didn’t have social media, so you can bet that people would be commenting on this show’s initial disaster [if it happened today],” Rees says, “and who knows what could have happened with Geraldo’s career.”
A Matter of Semantics
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of mean-hearted April Fool’s joke, you might be able to identify with Jodee Berry, former Hooters waitress. In 2002, she sued the restaurant over a fundraiser with a shocking grand prize, according to USA Today.
Berry participated in a company sales fundraiser, and she won. Initially, the restaurant had promised a new Toyota. Instead, the company awarded her with a new toy Yoda.
It was all meant to be an elaborate April Fool’s joke, but this one seems a little cruel. In Rees’ opinion, it wasn’t just cruel, it was a terrible PR move.
“After the initial joke was over, they should have surprised the winner of their contest with a real Toyota,” she says. “… In terms of good PR and goodwill, this gesture would have helped to go a long way, and also to lessen any potential damage to their name, reputation and brand.”
In the end, not only did Hooters come out looking like the bad guy, the ownership of that franchise was forced to settle with Berry after she filed a lawsuit for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. We sure hope she used a little of that money to get the car she had been dreaming of all along.