12 Most Outrageous PR Stunts in the History of Marketing (and Lessons Learned)

12 Most Outrageous PR Stunts in the History of Marketing (and Lessons Learned)

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

stunt (n.) Look up stunt at Dictionary.com“feat to attract attention,” 1878, Amer.Eng. college sports slang, of uncertain origin. Speculated to be a variant of colloq. stump “dare, challenge” (1871)

A PR stunt is a daring or challenging feat to attract media attention. Pioneered by the likes of PT Barnum and mastered by folks like Richard Branson, the stunt has become a tool to generate publicity [lots of it].

So what can we learn from the the 12 most outrageous stunts? Let’s have a look:

1. Frozen Grand Central

The group ‘Improv Everywhere’ masterminded this stunt in Grand Central Terminal. It inspired a number of ‘flash mobs’ in its wake. 28+ million YouTube views later:

Lesson: The 3 keys to a great stunt: location, location, location. Improv leverages Grand Central Terminal, an iconic commuter hub in the media capital of the world.

2. British Airways can’t get it up!

ba can't get it upIn the words of Richard Branson:

“We have fun competing, and we sometimes do it with a smile. When British Airways managed to sponsor the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames, they called a massive press conference. There was just one problem: They couldn’t get the wheel up; it was lying on the ground.

So we scrambled and got an airship [blimp], and as the wheel lay on the ground with the press watching—they had been kept waiting for seven hours—the airship flew over the wheel with a huge sign saying “BA can’t get it up.” This is the stuff that makes people smile. It is done in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it is very much part of the Virgin brand. It is this kind of fun-spirited competition that helps build a brand.

Lesson: Timing is everything. Speed trumps genius and opportunity favors the bold.

[Photo Credit: www.virgin.com/img/aboutvirgin/howitallworks/zepplin.jpg]

3. Panda’s in Paris

pandas eiffel towerThe WWF placed 1,600 papier mache panda bears in front of the Eiffel Tower. The number represented the number of pandas alive in the world and drew attention to the issues about their native environment in China.

[Photo Credit: hc gilge]

Lesson: Strength in numbers. Bring an idea or a number to life in a compelling way.

4. Dr. Pepper and Guns N’ Roses

293.rose.drpepperDr. Pepper promises to give everyone in America a taste of the Doctor assuming GN’R released it’s long awaited ‘Chinese Democracy’ by the end of 2008.

Lessons: Take advantage of an existing meme (online theme). Fans had wondered if the album (17 years in the making) would ever be released.

NOTE: If you make the offer . . .

Be sure to have the ability to make good on it. The brand drew significant scrutiny on its fulfillment.

[Photo Credit: KMazur / Getty]

5. Best PR Job in the World

Queensland Tourism took out a bunch of classifieds advertising ‘the greatest job in the world’.

According to Tourism Queensland, “To date it’s generated more than $70 million in publicity value through TV, radio and newspaper coverage, as well as special online discussion groups, bulletin boards, blogs and websites with applicants critiquing their competition, having detailed discussions and swapping ideas and tips.”

Lesson: Make it social and let consumers spread the word

6. Face from Space

How do launch a new logo for KFC in a way that transcends language? You build the world’s largest logo near Area 51 in Nevada. You then shoot it with the Google Earth satellite. This program generated over 600 million global media impressions.

Here is the timelapse of the build: [Watch the end of the video for an almost cautionary tale involving filming with a helicopter]

[Disclaimer: This was a project I was personally worked on at Synergy Events]

Lesson: Create a strong visual to transcend language

7. Taco Bell buys the Liberty Bell

Playing an April Fools prank in 1996, Taco Bell took out a full page in The New York Times and five other major newspapers, resulted in public outrage and hordes of press.

The ad read:

“In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country’s most historic treasures…”

All in good fun. Right?

Lesson: Play off of a holiday in a tongue and cheek way.

8. Michael Jackson and HIStory on the Thames

Sony created a 33 foot tall Michael and floated it under Tower Bridge in London. It was one of 10 statues placed around Europe to launch the late King of Pop’s Double CD HIStory.

Lesson: Build it ‘larger than life’ and they will cover it.

9. Jerry Seinfeld and the launch of Bee Movie

Head to the biggest film festival and create history by launching yourself from a famous hotel, across four lanes of traffic and the beach to land on a pier. Seinfeld did the flying with Chris Rock emceeing the action:


Lesson: Leverage a celebrity for a built in media hook. Making a grand entrance or reveal is essential.

10. Oprah and the G6

Every member of the audience (276 to be exact) receives a new car courtesy of Pontiac.

Lesson: Go over the top with a clever ‘Branded Act of Kindness’

11. Whopper Freakout

What happens when you take an American Icon off the menu for one day? Roll video:

Lesson: People don’t know what they’ve got . . . till its gone.

12. How to launch the name of your new company?

The folks at GRASSHOPPER sent 5,000 FedEx packages containing a total of 25,000 chocolate covered grasshoppers to the most influential people in America.

Lesson: The road to mainstream media can be driven through online influencers

Any other PR stunts that deserve an honorable mention in the comments?

Stan Phelps


Stan Phelps is Chief Solutions Officer at Synergy Events. Synergy is an award winning experiential marketing agency specializing in the creation of signature brand experiences. He believes the longest and hardest nine inches in marketing is the journey from the brain to the heart of your customer. He blogs at Marketing Lagniappe and is currently writing his first book, 'What's Your Purple Goldfish?'.

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