In 1978, WKRP in Cincinnati, a classic television sitcom about a dysfunctional radio station, aired its most popular episode ever, Turkey Drop. As a promotional stunt, the station's incompetent manager hires a helicopter to toss live turkeys over the city on Thanksgiving Day. After this fiasco backfires with bloody results, the manager, Arthur Carlson, replies, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"
Carlson was not the first manager, real or fictional, and certainly will not be the last, to grossly misjudge the razor line between buzz and bust when it comes to offbeat marketing campaigns. When these crazy stunts work, they can be very successful attention-getters, often resulting in millions of dollars in free advertising. When they fail, they can cause spectacular embarrassment, cost jobs, and even attract lawsuits.
Several of history's most outrageous marketing stunts are chronicled in Getting Into Guinness, my recent book on the cultural impact of Guinness World Records, which itself started out as a promotional gimmick. The beer giant thus spawned an entire genre of marketing stunts. Here's a list of what are arguably the most bizarre.
1. BUST: The Boston Bomb Scare
In a January 2007 attempt to create a guerilla marketing promotion for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Turner Broadcasting System's Cartoon Network commissioned backpack-sized devices with wires on the back and lights on the front capable of displaying a moving picture image. These were then placed around various spots in Boston. Unfortunately, many people took them for bombs. Boston officials have said that as many as 38 of the devices were planted in key spots around the city, but it only took the discovery of a few—in a train station, hospitals and on bridges—to cause a War of the Worlds-sized panic, sending the Boston Police's bomb squad out on full alert. Boat traffic was blocked from Boston Harbor, and the Pentagon had the US Northern Command in Colorado Springs monitoring the threat. The devices were also planted in nine other major US cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. As soon as mayhem erupted, Turner gave the locations of all the devices to authorities, and instructed the third party marketing company it had contracted for the stunt to end it immediately. CNN quoted Boston-based Congressman Ed Markey as saying, "It would be hard to dream up a more appalling publicity stunt." He added, "Whoever thought this up needs to find another job." Indeed, Jim Samples, General Manager of Cartoon Network, resigned in the wake of the promotion.
2. BUZZ: Nathan's Doc-Approved Dogs
Nathan's Famous is arguably the nation's best known hot dog chain, all grown from a single restaurant in New York's Coney Island. But it wasn't always that way. When immigrant Nathan Handwerker, an employee at the very successful Coney Island fast food eatery Feltman's, went out on his own and opened a competitor, he had problems. First, he tried to undercut his old boss on price, but only succeeded in making customers skeptical of the quality. Next, he tried hiring bums to stand around and make his place look busy, but the public saw through that too. Next, depending on which version of the story is to believed, he either had the bums dress as doctors, or in the more believable and widely offered version, simply offered free food to doctors and nurses when in uniform, which made sense given the proximity of hospitals. Either way, the public quickly came to identify Nathan's with medical professionals, an association Nathan capitalized on by erecting a sign that read "If doctors eat our hot dogs, you know they're good!" Today, just the original Nathans sells over one million hot dogs each year. Feltman's is long gone.
3. BUST: Last Days of Disco
Popular stunts can backfire, as the Chicago White Sox found out in 1979 when they staged a now-infamous "Disco Demolition Night." Fans were urged to bring in vinyl disco LP records in exchange for 98 cent admission to a double-header, with the knowledge that the records would be collected and blown up in between games. Team management hoped to bring in an additional 5,000 spectators, but 75,000 showed up. Many of them resorted to scaling walls and fences when turned away. After the first game, a local radio personality detonated the box of records with a bomb, and immediately spectators rioted onto the field, ripping up the bases, destroying the batting cages, and sending the players fleeing. The home team Sox forfeited the second game, and riot police had to come and disperse the crowd. This promotion came just five years after the Cleveland Indians' Ten Cent Beer Night promotion, which more than tripled the average attendance but also ended in a riot, destruction to the stadium, numerous injuries to players and fans, and forfeit of the game itself.
4. BUST: Oprah's Free Cars
Oprah Winfrey's stamp of approval can sure sell books, but a 2004 Pontiac giveaway on her show didn't work out as planned for the carmaker. General Motors decided to promote its new Pontiac G6 by giving one to every member of her studio audience—276 cars for a total retail value of nearly $8 million. But while Oprah basked in good press, few people noticed that the cars were Pontiacs. To make matters worse, days after the stunt, it was announced that each "winner" had to pay nearly $7000 tax on the vehicles, creating some ill will. To smooth things out, Pontiac had to go back to the till and cover the state sales tax.
5. BUZZ: Taco's New Bell
In 1996 Taco Bell set a new standard for April Fool's jokes when the fast food company bought newspaper ads featuring the iconic image of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, claiming that they had bought the national treasure and re-named it the Taco Liberty Bell. The stunt was sure to generate controversy, which it did, along with hundreds of complaints, but public opinion turned favorable when the joke was explained, and in addition, the company got more than 1000 major media hits. The entire exercise was considered such a coup that rival Burger King tried a similar campaign two years later, advertising its new "left handed" version of the Whopper sandwich on April Fools Day. Despite disappointing some southpaws who took the campaign too seriously, the results were viewed as highly favorable.
6. BUST: Steal This Identity
In a hybrid promo stunt/ad campaign, LifeLock CEO Todd Davis promoted his identity theft protection service by giving out his real social security number in print and broadcast ads and daring thieves to try to steal his identity. A West Virginia law firm representing multiple plaintiffs is attempting to sue, claiming that the ads are misleading because Davis' identity has been stolen since he began dispensing his information on air - by about 20 different thieves. LifeLock disputed the claim, saying that while many would be thieves were induced by the opportunity, only one was successful, to the tune of just $500. Whether the LifeLock goes down as one of history's great ad campaigns or just another payday for lawyers remains to be seen.
7. BUZZ: Guinness's Bar Book
What is now the third most widely read book ever, behind only the Bible and Koran, began as a marketing novelty akin to a neon sign or promotional towel. In 1954, Sir Hugh Beaver, Managing Director of the Arthur Guinness & Sons brewery, decided to print a record book that could be used to settle often senseless, alcohol-fueled barroom debates. (His inspiration was a heated argument over which of two species of birds was faster.) He commissioned the Guinness Book of Records, stamped the Guinness logo on the cover, and distributed it to pubs throughout the British Isles. Much to his surprise, it soon became so popular that bookstores demanded several reprints and it hit the bestseller list within weeks of release. There it has remained there ever since, with well over 110 million copies sold in three dozen languages. Guinness has since divested the publishing unit, but today the record book arguably enjoys greater global name recognition than its namesake Guinness Stout.
8. BUST: Snapple's Giant Meltdown
In 2005, Snapple set out to create the world's largest frozen juice pop in New York City. The 17.5 ton monstrosity melted too quickly, spewing out of the back of a tractor trailer and flooding streets around Union Square Park with a tidal wave of strawberry-kiwi flavored goop and sending Gotham citizens running for their lives, or least to save their shoes. There were a few minor injuries, which exposed the company to litigation potential and while the story did generous a lot of press, it was almost exclusively bad. MSNBC summed the story up with the title "Disaster on a Stick."
9. BUZZ: By Land, Sea and Air
British billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has built his empire of often unrelated businesses—record labels, bridal shops, airlines, trains—around the name Virgin, and promoted them with various exploration-type stunts. In 1986 Branson broke the record for fastest transatlantic sailing in a boat christened the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II (the original capsized). The very next year he made the first ever crossing of the Atlantic by hot air balloon, in the Virgin Atlantic Flyer, also breaking the record for the largest hot air balloon ever flown. Even his failures, such as his loss in the race to be the first to pilot a balloon around the world, and his four helicopter rescues from crashes at sea, have helped make headlines for his businesses. In 2004 he drove an "aquaticar," a combination car and boat, from London to Paris via roads and the English Channel, in order to break yet another Guinness World Record. It was a made-for-TV stunt, and Branson sat at the wheel in a tuxedo, arriving to fireworks and popping champagne corks, the car dutifully painted from hood to trunk with Virgin logos.
10. BUZZ: Name That Town
In 1950, NBC's quiz show Truth or Consequences? was one of the most popular shows on radio (and later television). So when the show's host, Ralph Edwards, announced on the air that he would broadcast from the first town willing to name itself after the show, he got a taker in New Mexico. Edwards made the town famous by returning the first weekend of May for the following 50 years. Its unique naming history also spawned an art photography book and a Hollywood movie starring Kiefer Sutherland and Martin Sheen. Today, New Mexicans affectionately call the town of 7,000 "T or C." It may have also set a precedent: In 2000, radio personality Don Imus sold the naming rights to his non-profit New Mexico cattle ranch for kids with cancer to Reader's Digest, as in Reader's Digest, NM, for one million charity dollars.