Five Outrageous PR Stunts That Paid Off

Ace in the Hole

Businesses and organizations began practicing formal Public Relations (PR) about one hundred years ago. Since then, the definitions and tactics of PR have changed, but the essence remains the same: Make a big impression, distribute it to a big crowd, get a big response.

While 20th century marketers seemed to view PR as a one-way communication focused on press agentry and publicity, today’s start-up founders and social media managers navigate a very different landscape. The public is a greater factor in the marketing dialogue, as people communicate non-stop and demand transparency (or at least the appearance of it) from business marketing. Ultimately, the most successful PR moves advertise personality, don’t take themselves too seriously, and focus on building relationships with the public.

Improv Everywhere No Pants Subway Ride

Since 2001, the self-described “prank collective” Improv Everywhere has staged countless flash mobs and events all over the planet. These theatrical “missions” and “projects” do not promote any cause or product, but exist, in the words of the founder, to spread joy and chaos in public places.

Perhaps one of the most famous Improv Everywhere missions is the annual No Pants Subway Ride. On a January day in 2002, seven young men entered a New York subway car at various stops. Each of them wore typical winter attire, minus pants. Pretending not to know each other, the men rode the subway in their underwear, leaving the car as calmly as they got on it. The mission is repeated every January, with thousands of participants in multiple cities and countries.

The No Pants Subway Ride popularized Improv Everywhere in New York and as an Internet sensation. With a highly recognizable brand, founder Charlie Todd heads up tours, marketing projects for corporations, and speaking engagements. The collective also enjoys merchandise revenue. All it took was going to a central location and catching the eyes of everyone around them.

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 movie about three film students who set out to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch, and end up disappearing in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. Marketed as a true story and horrifying mystery, the memory of this movie still sends shivers up the spine of nearly everyone who saw it.

Despite the detail and “evidence” on its website, the Blair Witch Project is a completely fictional story. The film was made on a very low budget, which actually made it seem more realistic as a student project. The pre-release build-up involved a fake documentary on the Sci-Fi channel, and the chatter of excited goth kids and ghost hunters, who preferred to believe that the footage was real.

By blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and tapping into real fear through fabricated history and imagery, the film brought in huge profits and a cult following. It’s amazing what a PR campaign can do when it leverages deep human emotion.

Grasshopper’s Chocolate Covered Insect Gift

When the phone system company Grasshopper wanted to make its name and brand stick in the minds of influential North Americans in 2009, it sent them a memorable gift. Some 5,000 politicians, journalists, bloggers, business leaders, and others received tidy packages containing chocolate covered grasshoppers, a link to a YouTube video, and the encouragement to “try something new.”

Needless to say, the PR stunt was a success. Grasshopper’s website was inundated with unique visitors. Hundreds of thousands viewed the YouTube video, and the company saw significant increases in its social media fan base.

Like so many companies, Grasshopper provides a rather mundane service. A simple focus shift from product to name, bolstered by placing a novelty in the hands of people who would talk, transformed a phone company into a colorful personality.

Rylstone Women’s Institute (Yorkshire) as Calendar Girls

In 1998, Angela Baker lost her husband to leukemia. In 1999, she and 10 friends from the Rylstone Women’s Institute (Yorkshire) posed nude in a calendar designed to raise funds for leukemia research. The British ladies were middle aged and older, and pictured in typical English settings with flowers, tea cups, and musical instruments. While the pictures were indeed provocative, the women’s nipples and genitals remained hidden.

Ultimately, the public purchased nearly one million copies of the calendar, raising two million pounds for leukemia research. This excellent legacy of Angela Baker’s husband was furthered when the ladies’ stunt inspired the movie Calendar Girls starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.

Nude photographs get attention. When mature women from polite society step into a role usually held by young models, people appreciate the humor, as well as the commentary on perceptions of taboo and beauty. Coupled with a good cause, a PR move like this is sure to make an impact.

Pandas in Paris

The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) placed 1,600 papier mâché panda bears around the center of Paris in 1998. It was an illustration of how many pandas remain in the wild, and their vulnerability as an endangered species.

Media outlets, as well as the public, flocked to the display. Pandas have long been a beloved creature, and the stunt was a reminder of how few are left. Despite improved methods finding a 40% increase over an earlier population count, the WWF voiced continuing concern about deforestation and poaching.

Giving statistics a visual representation brings them to life, and no one can overlook 1,600 objects in the center of their city. Much simpler installations could provide an equally memorable PR display.

Staying Power vs. Flash in the Pan

Good PR stunts put a brand in the limelight; great ones keep it there. It’s important to think through the potential social and legal ramifications of your tactics, and ensure all bases are covered to let your big impression draw the biggest crowd.

How big are you willing to go for an outrageous PR stunt? Do you think it’s usually worth the effort? Let us know in the comments!

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