In general, marketing is about making people feel bad about themselves and then convincing them that the only way to fill the hole in their heart is by spending money on something. It’s more than just dastardly, it’s actively making us feel horrible and making the world worse.
But one form of marketing that’s actually kind of interesting is the publicity stunt — the art of making something newsworthy happen in order to draw media attention to your product or service. Unlike, say, magazine ads, publicity stunts actually create something other than crippling self-doubt in the world (when they don’t horrifically backfire). Here are a few publicity stunts that actually achieved what they set out to do:
Taco Bell: Taco Liberty Bell (1996)
On April Fool’s Day 1996, Taco Bell took out several full-page ads claiming that in order to “reduce the country’s debt”, they were buying the famous Philadelphia landmark Liberty Bell and renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Of course it was a prank, but that didn’t stop thousands of people (who presumably didn’t check their calendars) from calling Taco Bell and the National Park Service to protest. Taco Bell laughed all the way to the bank — they saw over $1 million in sales increases over the next two days, plus an estimated $25 million of free publicity. Suck it, national treasure!
PokerShare.com: Free Gas (2006)
File this one under “dangerously irresponsible but still pretty smart”. In 2006, PokerShare.com decided to promote their new site, CasinoShare.com, by handing out $40 worth of free gas to anyone in New York or L.A. who got to their gas station in time. The ensuing lines caused the NYPD to shut the stunt down early. Somehow, New Yorkers outperformed expectations and no one was murdered Mad Max-style over a gas tank. Instead, PokerShare got way more publicity than they would have if they had just handed out cash or vouchers for their website. And look, ma, we’re still writing about ‘em!
Red Bull: Red Bull Stratos (2012)
Red Bull has sponsored a lot of reckless behavior over the years, but none so wild as Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump from the stratosphere. For those of you who weren’t alive three years ago, first of all, sorry for ruining the environment, and second of all, a dude skydived from a height of 24 miles, falling so fast that he became the first human to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle. The incident generated huge so much publicity that one percent of all online conversation at the time was about the jump. You’d have to kill someone REALLY famous to get that much traction!
Mailbox: The Wait List (2013)
Equal parts brilliant and head-crushingly stupid, Mailbox is an email app that is somehow different from the thousands of email apps out there in a way I will never bother to look up. Their publicity stunt involved setting up a completely unnecessary red velvet rope outside of their app. And it worked. Over 260,000 people put themselves on the wait list before launch, and about a month after launch they sold their app to Dropbox for $100 freaking million dollars. Sometimes genius looks annoying and stupid. Who knew?
Tinder: Frats & Sororities (2014)
Tinder, the app everyone except you is using to have sex with each other, has blown up dramatically in the past year, and one of the ways they got buzz started was by sending co-founder Whitney Wolfe to universities all across the country. She would first go to a sorority, get all the girls to sign up, then head to their partner fraternity and get all the guys to sign up and start messaging the girls. Simple, brilliant, causer of at least 10,000 STDs. Her tour resulted in Tinder’s user base tripling in just a couple months, and now they have over 10 million users. COINCIDENCE?
5 Publicity Stunts That Actually Worked