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10 outrageous CEO stunts in history that changed business

What do Heinz, Chanel, Wrigley, and Bezos have in common? A propensity for ballyhoo that drove their businesses forward

10 outrageous CEO stunts in history that changed business
[Illustration: Peter Oumasnki]

1. H.J. Heinz, 1897

During an early wave of public concern about food safety, the ketchup king became the first CEO to open his factory for tours.

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The impact: Facility visits quickly drew 20,000 visitors annually, and Heinz kept using transparency to build consumer trust, promoting federal regulation to transform the entire food industry.

2. Coco Chanel, 1910

As a young milliner, Chanel first won business by parading around Paris in a daringly small hat, prompting women to want what she had.

The impact: Chanel replicated the stunt a decade later by spritzing her new perfume in public. Her lifestyle-branding savvy has been emulated by Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, and social influencers.

3. William Wrigley Jr., 1915

Wrigley decided to try to boost sales of his chewing gum brands by sending free samples to the 1.5 million U.S. homes with a telephone.

The impact: The gambit worked, and Wrigley invented direct marketing in the process. Today, direct mail is a $42 billion business; search marketing, its digital equivalent, is almost as large.

4. Walt Disney, 1954

When the cartoon mogul designed a new amusement park called Disneyland, he got ABC to fund its construction in exchange for a Disney TV series.

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The impact: The weekly anthology show, Walt Disney’s Disneyland, was an amazing promotion for the theme park, and it would air for 30 years. Disney created modern entertainment synergy.

5. Katharine Graham, 1971

The Washington Post’s publisher risked the ire of the U.S. government by joining The New York Times in printing the Pentagon Papers—which she didn’t have to do—before her company’s IPO.

The impact: Graham shared in a landmark victory for press freedom, inspiring a media generation to challenge power, while also elevating the Post.

6. Debbi Fields, 1977

Mrs. Fields, a 20-year-old baker, set a goal of selling $50 worth of cookies her first day in business. She made $75—largely by offering samples, but also because she set an ambitious goal for herself.

The impact: Fields was soon analyzing hourly sales and building predictive forecasting systems that would influence how chain restaurants run.

7. Steve Jobs, 1984

At the live unveiling of the Mac, Jobs removed it from a sack, stepped aside, and the computer introduced itself, saying, “Hello, I’m Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag.” He earned a standing ovation and even tears from the crowd.

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The impact: No one had ever seen a tech demo like it. The formula is still used today.

8. Ted Turner, 1997

The CNN founder stunned the world by pledging $1 billion to the United Nations.

The impact: Turner made good on his offer by 2014, funding programs such as solar-powered irrigation in Zambia and antimalarial nets in Kenya. The gift also changed philanthropy, presaging Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge for billionaires.

9. Mary Barra, 2014

In the wake of a safety crisis weeks into Barra’s tenure as GM’s CEO, she proactively sought to compensate those who’d been hurt, hiring the same attorney who administered claims to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina victims.

The impact: Barra has restored GM’s reputation as forward-thinking and trustworthy.

10. Jeff Bezos, 2017–2018

Bezos turned Amazon’s search for a second corporate headquarters into a nationwide contest.

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The impact: No winner has yet been chosen, but Amazon scored invaluable data about each of the 238 cities that applied, likely forever altering how companies choose where to locate and what concessions they ask of cities.

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