ANALYSIS: Publicity stunts - Moran: stunt father or outdated prankster?

James Sterling Moran, the paragon of the publicity stunt, died October 18 at the age of 91. He left behind a legacy of sheer nerve that put him somewhere among P.T. Barnum, Edward Bernays and Ben Sonnenberg as the nerviest PR people of all. But was Moran just a then-creature or is he one for the ages? Isadore Barmash examines the question

James Sterling Moran, the paragon of the publicity stunt, died October 18 at the age of 91. He left behind a legacy of sheer nerve that put him somewhere among P.T. Barnum, Edward Bernays and Ben Sonnenberg as the nerviest PR people of all. But was Moran just a then-creature or is he one for the ages? Isadore Barmash examines the question

James Sterling Moran, the paragon of the publicity stunt, died

October 18 at the age of 91. He left behind a legacy of sheer nerve that

put him somewhere among P.T. Barnum, Edward Bernays and Ben Sonnenberg

as the nerviest PR people of all. But was Moran just a then-creature or

is he one for the ages? Isadore Barmash examines the question





Larger than life, larger than his business and larger in imagination

than most of his peers, Jim Moran is hardly known these days. His

passing came only a few weeks ago but the debate is growing. Is he an

anachronism in today’s Internet-crazed, psycho-demographics world of

marketing and communications, as some believe? Or is he one of PR’s

seminal practitioners, however wild, clunky and clanky some of his

publicity methods were?



A natural extrovert, Moran’s 70-year career was marked by outrageous

stunts, excessive leaps of the imagination and great expressions of

chutzpah long before that word became popular. From his early youth, he

was a maverick, fiercely independent, as atypical a boy as they could

find in his hometown of Woodstock, VA, and blithely unconcerned what

other kids or adults thought of him. Big, ungainly and brash, he went

his own way. More than once, after school season ended, he hopped a

train and was gone until school resumed. ’Where’ve you been? What’ve you

seen?’ he was asked. ’Ev’rywhere and plenty,’ he would reply.





Pranks



His stunts included selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo, sitting on an

ostrich egg for more than two weeks to publicize the best-selling book,

The Egg and I, and literally changing horses in midstream to make a

political point. These and other shenanigans attracted diverse clients:

politicians, movie studios, book publishers and department stores. And

the shtick drew lots of ink for his clients - and himself. In 1989, he

got the personal accolade when Time magazine hailed him as ’the supreme

master of that most singular marketing device - the publicity

stunt.’



Yet, these days his name has a hollow ring. Most of today’s PR pros

don’t know of him or his stunts. Only a rapidly dwindling cadre of

old-timers tout him as a true pioneer of PR, even as it is practiced

today.



’Moran’s shtick are still being used today,’ says Howard Rubenstein.



’He was right. He thought visually so that you could get maximum media

response. You can always get that with some real imagination - then and

now.’



’He was unusual because he knew exactly what the press wanted,’ says

Alan Caruba, a veteran PR pro. ’You could literally pattern our business

today after what he did. The PR business came out of stunts. I’d equate

Moran with both Bernays and Sonnenberg.’



Moran did not attend college nor is there any indication that he

completed high school. He probably didn’t need to. He had a sort of

native acumen bracingly blended with humorous abandon. Moran’s sole

survivor, his 83-year-old brother Paul, recalls, ’As a young fellow, Jim

was always the extrovert. He liked to do things that other people

didn’t. Maybe he shouldn’t have gone on those freight trains but he said

he had met lots of interesting people.’



The younger Moran says with a laugh, ’Jim was always very energetic

although he was only a mediocre student. I recall the time that Jim

built an outhouse for the family. One day, he got on top of it and

jumped off. He was trying to demonstrate his flying ability.’



No one really knows why Moran got into PR. But it’s natural for a young

man with a giant-size zest and few inhibitions to figure he was right

for a business that can influence people with a blend of enthusiasm and

minor reservations.



It wasn’t a direct route. He worked as a tour guide in Washington, DC,

became an airline executive in the capital and later operated a radio

studio where Congressmen recorded speeches for local radio stations.



But it wasn’t very long before his restless nature and courage had him

performing things that left other PR men with their mouths hanging

open.



To publicize the 1959 film The Mouse That Roared, Moran opened an

’embassy’ for a mythical country. A few years earlier, in an effort to

promote a Broadway musical, he rigged a cab so that a chimpanzee would

seem to be driving it. But it was actually Moran driving the car from

the back seat.



And shoppers at the posh New York China shop Ovington’s were one day

shocked to see a grinning Moran actually walking a bull through it. His

theory: create an oxymoronic incident and people will remember it with a

sort of wicked pleasure.





Modern relevance



Could such ploys work today? Rubenstein, a great fan, learned much from

Moran at a class that the pro gave. ’I was just starting in the business

and got a lot out of his class,’ Rubenstein recalls. ’His stunts

encouraged me to do similar things. Once, I had (city councilman Vito

Battista) strip down to near-nudity and wear a barrel with his

suspenders holding it up so that he could demonstrate how taxes were

hurting the public (a stunt which, incidentally, was mimicked recently

by Beyond.com CEO Mark Breier, who appeared on CNBC in boxer

shorts).’



Pausing, Rubenstein adds, ’Yes, I sure think that a lot of that stuff

could work today. The public really hasn’t changed all that much.’



Unquestionably Moran’s tactics reflected an almost classical tendency

among old-school press agents that had developed their own, Broadway

paradigm. Dramatize the event and the public will beat a path to your

door. From that standpoint, he had brothers in kind - like Ben

Sonnenberg, who came up with the idea of live mannequins in store

windows; or Max Rosey, the press agent who originated the idea of a

hot-dog eating contest for Nathan’s restaurants and also brought Santa

Claus in by plane to Hess’s department store in Allentown, PA.



Moran wanted to go even further. An enthusiastic kite flier, he wanted

to fly midgets on kites over Central Park. But the city police

demurred.



Moran was crushed -- or behaved as if he were. What kind of

entrepreneurial country was it if midgets weren’t allowed to be

transported by kites?



A good question, no doubt about it. Show business, circus or Atlantic

City boardwalk stunts should rightfully be immortal. After all, that’s

how America was built, wasn’t it?



Jim Moran was one for the ages rather than merely a contemporary

phenomenon.



What he performed - or more properly, perpetrated - has plenty of

relevance in the clutter of hype, push and shove of today’s PR

Laid-back is hardly a panacea. Push and creativity, leavened by more

than a touch of humor, works better. Even today.





JAMES MORAN: 70 YEARS OF PR PRANKS



PR maverick Moran was called ’the supreme master of the publicity

stunt.’ Here are some of his better-known exploits:



1 Sold a refrigerator to an Eskimo



2 Sat on an ostrich egg for more than two weeks to publicize the book

The Egg and I



3 Led a bull through a tony Fifth Avenue china shop



4 Opened a phony embassy for a mythical country to promote the movie The

Mouse That Roared



5 Rigged a cab to make it seem like a chimpanzee was driving to promote

a Broadway musical



6 Tried to fly kites with midgets attached over Central Park.



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