The 25 greatest publicity stunts of our time

As part of the research for our Cannes Lions keynote (Zen and The Art Of The Publicity Stunt) we’ve been taking a look back at the great marketing and publicity stunts of our time – from the many that burned brightly and briefly to those that endured and morphed into enduring annual events.

A great publicity stunt should stop people in their tracks, deliver a thunderclap of social media chatter and a ton of media coverage.

Publicity stunts have a long history as a disruptive tactic for challenger brands – those that can’t afford to spend their way into the public consciousness and need to generate word of mouth quickly.

And in our brave new, ad-blockable, ad-skippable world, it’s a potent way to cut through the clutter and grab attention.

And so in no particular order here are the….

25 greatest publicity stunts of our time

1. Red Bull: Stratos Space Jump

In 2012, Felix Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier (without the help of a machine) by falling 23 miles from the Earth’s stratosphere. The stunt, which was conceived, produced and broadcast by Red Bull, captured the world’s attention and pulled in 8m live views on YouTube.

2. Calendar Girls

In 1999 a group of 11 members of the Women’s Institute (in Yorkshire, UK) stripped to create a calendar to raise money for charity. The original calendar featured the women posing nude – obscured by baked goods and flower arrangements. 800,000 copies were sold worldwide. Their efforts took the world by storm in 2000 and inspired a hit movie.

3. Virgin Atlantic

Over the years we have seen Sir Richard Branson going to incredible lengths to promote the various companies that fall under his umbrella brand. When rival airline British Airways ran into construction problems with its London Eye, he hijacked BA's press launch by arranging for a branded airship to do a fly by – carrying a cheeky message.

4. Greenpeace scales Christ the Redeemer

In 2002 activists from the environmental organisation Greenpeace abseiled from the top of the statue of Christ the Redeemer to protest against the results of the World Summit on sustainability. As an organisation it has mastered the art of getting people's attention – climbing buildings, scaling monuments and disrupting whale boats. This year it fitted gas marks to statues across London and in 2015 scaled the Shard.

5. WWF's Earth Hour

Earth Hour began in 2007 with 2.2 million people turning off all non-essential lights in Sydney, Australia. The following year more famous landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Rome’s Coliseum were all plunged into darkness as the world joined together to raise awareness of climate change issues. A record-breaking 172 countries and territories took part in Earth Hour 2015 with about 10,400 participating landmarks. Millions of people switched their lights off for an hour, and the Earth Hour 2015 campaign saw over 7m digital interactions.

6. Uber Ice Cream

Uber’s early company history was punctuated by all kinds of problems. There were regulatory issues, a backlash to surge pricing and lots of angry taxi drivers to manage. But while all this was going on UBER won hearts and minds with a series of fun tactical stunts. In 2012 the company identified the hottest day of the year and announced it would do door-to-door ice cream delivery - and in the process create headlines and lots of Instagram. The promotion, now in its fourth year running, is now offered in a total of 252 cities around the world.

7. Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

Incredible floats, giant inflatable cartoon characters, marching bands and a cast of thousands attract over 3.5 million New Yorkers to line the streets for the Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2015, 23 million viewers across America watched from home on TV. The first parade was a much smaller affair, created in 1924 as a stunt to draw attention to the department store. Macy’s employees walked six miles in nursery-rhyme themed fancy dress, accompanied by animals from the city zoo.

8. When Pepsi turned blue

In 1996 Pepsi decided to ditch its red-and-blue can and replace it with an electric-blue one to differentiate it from main rival, Coca-Cola. The company struck a deal with Air France for Concorde to be re-sprayed in ‘Pepsi Blue’ and flew in journalists from 40 countries to witness the news conference (also attended by supermodels Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer)

The drinks brand also reportedly paid the Daily Mirror circa £2m to go blue for the day and arranged for cosmonauts on the Mir space station to pose with a giant Pepsi can.

9. Marylin Monroe's Seven Year Itch

That famous Marylin Monroe billowing skirt shot was not accidentally caused by a passing subway train as is often reported. During a photocall for The Seven Year Itch, opportunistic movie publicists activated a secret wind machine hidden beneath the street grate once photographers had assembled.

10. The Tour de France

100 years ago Henri Desgrange came up with the idea of a bike race round France in order to raise the profile of L’Auto, the newspaper he worked for. It captured the imagination of the public, doubled the circulation of L’Auto and eventually put its rival paper Le Velo out of business. The event is now broadcast in 188 countries.

11. The McWhopper

In 2015 Burger King publicly called a truce with its biggest rival McDonald's. The goal? To operate one restaurant for one day staffed by employees of both companies and selling a burger called the McWhopper, a blend of the Big Mac and the Whopper. Sales proceeds would be donated to Peace One Day. Burger King generated global coverage for the throwdown and many were disappointed that McDonald’s declined the opportunity.

12. Airbnb – The Big Gay Stay

The reason the airbnb delivers more column inches than the rest of the travel industry put together is because creative publicity is among its greatest marketing skills.

At the 2015 Sydney Mardi Gras Parade it promoted a unique competition dubbed The Big Gay Stay. The winning couple got to spend the night in a unique float with a harbour view location before joining the actual parade. The float house came with a glitter cannon and neon lights.

13. Michael Jackson – Giant Statue

In June 1995 Sony launched a $30m promotional campaign for the album HIStory by floating a huge statue of Michael Jackson down the River Thames. There were a total of nine statues throughout Europe. Each statue was 10 meters tall, 2,100 kilograms in weight and made from steel and fibreglass. Ever since, ‘float it down The Thames?’ has become a staple response in PR agency brainstorms – frequently fielded when there are no other ideas coming forth.

14. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty

Unilever’s toiletry brand Dove became a household name thanks to its highly PR-able ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ used real women in ads rather than the stick thin models favoured by rivals. The campaign kicked off in 2003 with adverts featuring six ordinary women in their underwear and boosted sales by 700 per cent.

15. The Blair Witch Project

Producers of The Blair Witch Project succeeded in creating huge pre-hype for their low budget horror flick. Blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, they circulated tapes to colleges which were presented as ‘real video diary footage’. This was one of the first feature films to use ‘viral content’ to build hype. The buzz ensured that Blair Witch was a major success, taking over $150m at the box office.

16. P.T Barnum's elephants over Brooklyn Bridge

Circus promoter P.T Barnum was the consummate promoter. He staged bizarre stunts and generated sensational word of mouth for his attractions. When the Brooklyn Bridge was gearing up for opening day in May 1883, the New York showman paraded his troupe of elephants across it and in doing so reassured the public that it was safe for passage while generating huge coverage for his show.

17. Tiger tees off

In March 2004 Tiger Woods was paid $1m to play in the Dubai Desert Golf Classic. Organisers staged a media call to launch the tournament in which Woods practiced his tee-shot from the helipad of the Burj Al Arab, the world’s tallest free-standing hotel.

18. The Hollywood sign

The Hollywood sign is one of the most universally recognisable landmarks in the world – however many are unaware that originally the sign had absolutely nothing to do with the movie industry. It was in fact, a grand-scale marketing stunt by a real estate developer who wanted to sell houses in a dismal suburb Los Angeles. Originally dubbed ‘Hollywoodland’, the attention-grabbing billboard was 50ft high and became the talk of the town.

19. Asda’s free eye tests for the Swiss

Piggybacking the media frenzy of Euro 2004, British supermarket chain Asda offered free eye tests to Swiss citizens. The stunt responded to a controversial decision by Swiss referee Urs Meier who disallowed Sol Campbell’s late goal. His ruling ended England’s participation in the tournament.

20. American Tobacco – Torches of Freedom

Working for the American Tobacco Company in 1929, Edward Bernays was tasked with repositioning cigarettes as a symbol of freedom for women. He sent a group of young women to march in New York City’s Easter Sunday parade and informed the media that a group of women’s rights marchers would light “Torches of Freedom”. The models lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the eager photographers and the next day The New York Times printed: "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a ‘Gesture of Freedom'." Sales doubled as the brand built an addicted following.

21 KFC's edible nail polish

KFC Hong Kong created two edible nail polishes, bringing the classic tagline "Finger Lickin' Good" to life. The polish flavours (featuring a secret mix of 11 secret herbs and spices) are based on the brand's two favourite recipes, Original and Hot & Spicy.

22. The Olympic Torch Relay

The International Olympic Committee's world famous Torch Relay has been executed in the months before the Winter and Summer Games since 1936. The legendary stunt has generated mass publicity for the Olympics, athletes and sponsors.

23. Sex Pistols sign to A&M Records

To mark their new deal with A&M records, the Sex Pistols staged a contract signing event for media in front of Buckingham Palace.

24. Police stage fake art exhibition

London’s Metropolitan Police Service’s Art and Antiques Unit raised awareness of some of the investigative methods involved in detecting and preventing the increasingly sophisticated crime of art forgery by staging an exhibition of fake art at the V&A.

25. Naked Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament

A 100ft naked image of Gail Porter was projected on to the Houses of Parliament in 1999 as part of a publicity stunt by FHM magazine.

Eight tips for stunt success

1. Stunts need to be entertaining and engaging but they must also be rooted in a coherent narrative that integrates with the rest of the marketing message.

2. Most stunts necessitate a picture and video element – and if that’s the case you need to resist the temptation to kill them with corporate branding and logos. Credit the audience and media with some intelligence and respect. Great campaigns prompt people to learn more; they will want to know ‘who did this and why?’

3. Sometimes it’s easier to join a conversation than start one. There are endless opportunities to ride the topical news agenda and calendar events as a platform to talk about your brand.

4. People love audacity, originality, bravery and of course they love to be entertained. The best stunt marketing is both audacious and bold – the greater the risk the greater the return.

5. With the right idea a brand can also engage with its audience on a far more meaningful level, building in social, experiential and interactive elements.

6. Interrogate the idea thoroughly. Always ask the difficult questions – what could go wrong?

7. Remember you are not trying to hoodwink the media – you are delivering something smart, artful and entertaining that will delight their readers.

8. Hire a decent agency that knows the game (*coughs*)

James Herring is the co-founder of creative PR agency Taylor Herring. James Herring and Peter Mountstevens present ‘Zen And the Art Of The Publicity Stunt’ at 1pm, Saturday 18 June, Debussy Theatre, Palais De Festival, Cannes Lions

JH

James Herring

All by James