Who doesn't love a good PR stunt? The last couple of years have featured some of the most memorable in recent history, but what do they really do for a brand and are they worth the investment?
What PR stunts do incredibly well is create a spike, a moment of clarity and bravado that increases brand or product awareness and allows the brand to jump out at a consumer and slap them in the face, but is that really enough?
Some brands thrive on them, Paddy Power being a good example. Its position as a challenger brand to the big high street bookies allows its messaging to create immediate cut through to its Buzzfeed-reading, socially-media active audience. It's happy to offend, like its work around the 2015 election or its baiting of various football teams; as it plays in the market of banter, surprise and one-upmanship. But does it truly gain trust from its audience? It plays on being your whacky mate, and for its core audience, that might work but it's far less effective at bringing new consumers in for the long haul.
Stunts work for brands in very crowded marketplaces with little differentiation between products such as beers. Last year's 'best poster in the world' stunt from Carlsberg, which offered free beer, reinforced and supported their revised positioning with humour and appropriateness, but did it really tell you anything new or innovative for the brand and does it create a 'one trick pony' style of stunt that just tries to outdo the one before?
One market that relies heavily on PR stunts is TV. Remember the polar bear strolling around London (promoting Fortitude), the life-size chocolate Benedict Cumberbatch (to publicise TV channel Drama) or the 12-foot Mr Darcy emerging from the Serpentine (also to publicise Drama) to name a few? Stunts for this market have impact because all broadcasters have an ongoing conversation with their consumers every day in the form of owning their own media; playing promos, voicing continuity etc, so they use stunts to create spikes of differentiation, plus they are usually directing the audience to a one-off event, and are not designed as a long-term communication model.
Sometimes PR stunts have no purpose other than to put a smile on the viewer's face and the Rocky theme music stunt to help launch the movie Creed did just that. The familiar uplifting tune and the look of joy on people's faces as they raced up the stairs to be greeted by a brass band just made me feel happy inside. It wasn't big or particularly clever, but it was charming, and it rekindled the viewer's love for the Rocky franchise with a warm simplicity that cut through the usual hyperbolic January nonsense.
Most stunts play by certain rules:
- It’s something big, bigger than usual, maybe so big it's a world record.
- It's in an unexpected place that creates confusion, surprise or humour.
- They feature celebrities, either in person or referenced.
- They occur at unexpected moments.
Always remember that stunts are a little like balloons popping; they create a very loud bang, but you're left with very little as a consequence.
PR stunts won't disappear, we hardly see a brief that doesn't ask us to get a client on the front page of a paper, a website or on the news, but if it's substance, longevity and true brand engagement that a client needs, stunts are rarely the correct answer. There's no loyalty in a burst balloon, just a very quick desire to blow one up and do it again.
Simon Amster is creative content director at TVC Group