11 Publicity Stunts Startups Can Learn From

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It’s always been hard to break through the noise. Though publicity stunts might feel like some unique symptom of our 24/7 new cycle, they aren’t. Not by a long shot.

People have been using publicity stunts to get attention for hundreds of years. Some of the our most iconic events, like the Rose Bowl, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Tour de France started as publicity stunts. Of course, while stunts are a great way to capture the attention of the masses, they sometimes can turn into a literal train wreck.

For those of you who are trying to dream up the perfect publicity stunt for your business, here is a list of the 11 Best Publicity Stunts for inspiration. Some are modern, some are classic, but they all have something in common: they got massive amounts attention incredibly cheaply.

1. Nipplegate

“Nipplegate” is considered to be the most controversial television event ever and was seen by 89.8 million people. YouTube creator Jawed Karim has said that the inspiration for Youtube came from not being able to easily find the clip of the incident on the Internet. Shortly after Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast for a half-second, ‘Janet Jackson’ became the most searched term in Internet history. While all parties claimed that the incident was a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ its now pretty clear that it was an orchestrated publicity stunt. The FCC came down hard on CBS, which was initially fined $550,000 for the incident. As for Janet Jackson, the stunt backfired majorly, as she was blacklisted by Viacom for her next three albums. The lesson here is clear: while publicity stunts can get you major attention, you have to consider if the type of attention you get will be counterproductive for your brand.

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2. P.T. Barnum’s American Museum

Barnum is America’s greatest showman. When he started his first venture, the American Museum, he hired a beggar, gave him five bricks and told to him to circle the museum, putting down the bricks at a certain point, always keeping one in his hands. On his way back he was to pick up the bricks and enter the museum and leave through the back door to make the same circle again. Every time the man silently made the circle, more and more people followed him, eventually entering Barnum’s new museum. On the first day the man had brought in more than one thousand people into Barnum’s museum. Eventually the police ordered Barnum to stop the stunt as crowds began blocking the streets. While creating a spectacle is fun, make sure you have a plan for funneling that attention into paying customers, or else your business won’t get much return on the investment.

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3. The Blair Witch Project

This entire project was one grand, beautifully executed publicity stunt. And it was one of the most profitable films of all time, with a film budget of $22,500 and a box office gross of $248 million worldwide. Its also thought to be one of the first widely released films to be primarily marketed via the Internet. Supposedly the film was put together from “found footage” from three amateur filmmakers who had disappeared while hiding in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland. (Burkittsville later had to create an FAQ on their website explaining that this was all fake.) The movie’s website featured fake police reports and news interviews about the disappearance of the filmmakers who were never seen or heard from again. On the actors sparse IMDB pages, their only listing was The Blair Witch Project and their pages had them listed as “presumed dead.” The Blair Witch Project shows how valuable creating an aura of mystery around your project can be. Seduce people by creating a mythology around your brand that is irresistible.

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4. Edward Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom”

Bernays is referred to as the “father of public relations.” As the nephew of Sigmund Freud, he definitely had the know-how to get into the hearts and minds of the American public. The American Tobacco Company hired Bernays to find a way to attract more women to smoke their cigarettes. Bernays came up with just the plan. After consulting with psychoanalyst A.A. Brill, Bernays came up with the “Torches of Freedom” campaign. Bernays hired models to smoke their “Torches of Freedom” in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. For women to smoke in public in 1929 was taboo, but Bernay smartly co-opted the feminist movement that was growing in the US after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. News of the “Torch of Freedom” spread across the US and by 1935 18.1 percent of smokers were women, up from 5 percent twelve years earlier. If you see a trend growing that aligns with your brand, don’t be afraid to co-opt for your own purposes and get in front of the parade.

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5. Guinness Book of World Records

This publicity stunt started as a free marketing giveaway in the 1950s by the Guinness Breweries. After getting into an argument over which was the fastest game bird in Europe during a hunting trip, the golden plover or the grouse (it’s the golden plover), Sir Hugh Beaver, then managing director of the Guinness Breweries, realized that a book supplying answers to this kind of question might prove popular in pubs throughout Ireland. The book was put together and one thousand copies were given away. It was such a success that the following year the book sold 70,000 copies in the US. Since then, The Guinness Book of World Records has become world’s highest selling copyrighted book, causing it to have an entry in its own pages. It has also become the fast growing publicity stunt for companies looking to gain attention.

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