A bad publicity stunt is memorable for all the wrong reasons

Did you hear the one about the Jägermeister pool party in Mexico where the organisers poured dry ice into the packed pool to create a great picture?

The wrong sort of publicity stunt will be remembered forever, writes Peter Mountstevens
The wrong sort of publicity stunt will be remembered forever, writes Peter Mountstevens

Eight people were hospitalised and one person was left comatose as the substance displaced the oxygen around pool, leaving the partygoers unable to breathe. 

Lazy, ill conceived and badly executed, the Jägermeister incident is one of more worrying entries into the ever-expanding PR stunt Hall of Shame.

Recent years have seen the widespread adoption of stunt marketing among PR’s and marketing agencies – and for good reason. A well-designed and executed stunt can be an incredibly powerful weapon, generating a huge return on investment as consumers become increasingly desensitized to conventional advertising.

Last year, close to a third of the PRWeek Award-winning campaigns could be loosely categorised as PR stunts. Clever stunt marketing took the key honours for categories including Best Creative, Campaign of the Year, Not-for-profit, Tech and Marketing Communications, to name but a few

From polar bears to floating houses, it would seem that we all enjoy a cunning stunt. 

On the flipside, however, a poor attempt can taint the whole industry and the history of the PR profession is littered with examples where bad timing, crass ideas and poor planning have resulted in negative headlines.

In the UK, it would seem barely a week goes by without someone floating something large and inanimate down the Thames or staging a photocall at Potters Fields Park.

These executions have given us plenty to debate, as the ideas themselves have now morphed into Alan Partridge-esque ‘in jokes’ and PR clichés. The reality, however, is that they barely scratch the surface when it comes to ill-conceived ideas.

Thankfully, most of the most prominent entries in the PR Hall of Shame come from the US. The Cartoon Network famously promoted its new show Aqua Teen Hunger Force by placing strange magnetic flashing packages around Boston, terrifying locals and causing a full-scale terrorist bomb alert. On a lighter note, Snapple attempted to erect a 17.8 tonne ice-lolly during the height of a New York summer. It melted before the photocall, flooding Times Square in kiwi fruit-flavoured goo.

An honourable mention should also go to Doctor Pepper for its ‘buried coins’ treasure hunt, which very nearly led to the graves of America's founding fathers being dug up in Boston.

As agencies and PRs go chasing engagement and mass headlines for their clients, it’s worth remembering these cautionary tales.

A great PR stunt is an art form – not a blunt weapon – with a rich history that dates back thousands of years to the days of campfire storytellers and the Roman Empire.

At Cannes Lions, I will be discussing the art of the publicity stunt, focusing on inspiring examples and exploring the history of one of the most potent forms of brand engagement.

A great PR stunt is a thing of wonder, demonstrating an artistry that rivals traditional advertising for creativity, storytelling and engagement. As for the bad ones, they are just as entertaining but for all the wrong reasons.

Peter Mountstevens is managing partner at Taylor Herring

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