When someone refers to something as “just a PR stunt,” they are usually talking about an attempted PR stunt. Attempted PR stunts are superficial, lazy and repeatable. (We’ve seen a lot of them lately.) Successful PR stunts, on the other hand are game changing and rare. They require all-in commitment and the right timing. Let’s look at a few that nailed it.
The Goodyear Blimp
The stunt: In 1930 the Goodyear Blimp “Defender” became the first airship in the world to carry a lighted sign. In 1940, to build on that success, the Goodyear Blimps Reliance, Ranger and Resolute were equipped with a record player, microphone and attached loudspeaker and would “blimpcast” recordings and live greetings to large public gatherings. On January 1, 1955, using camera and microwave transmitting equipment provided by NBC, the Enterprise V became the first aerial platform to provide a live television picture of a nationally televised program when it broadcast the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. To this day, Goodyear offers their airships to TV networks to use for filming sporting and other entertainment events. They ask only that the networks mention their brand when talking about the blimp.
Why it’s great: First of all, I bet you didn’t even know this was a stunt. It just seems so natural to see the Goodyear blimp at a sporting event. In fact, seeing it has become part of the experience. Although the blimp was initially built for transportation and military purposes, it has become one of America’s favorite corporate icons.
The Blair Witch Project
The stunt: PR for the movie, The Blair Witch Project, has been called the “best viral marketing campaign of all time.” In the (unlikely) case you missed it, here’s the short version. The Blair Witch Project (1997) is the story of three student filmmakers who are investigating the supernatural legend known as the Blair Witch in the town of Burkittsville, Maryland. After interviewing the locals, they disappear into the Black Hills with their recording equipment, and are never seen again. A year later, their footage is found and pieced together to make the movie. This was a “microbudget” movie that was filmed for around $25,000. It was shot on handheld cameras and filmed almost entirely by the three main actors. There was no script. It took just 8 days to shoot. It was marketed in such a way that the audience didn’t know whether it was real or not. The producers placed posters looking for information about the missing students at Sundance and other film festivals. Even IMDB listed the actors as “missing, presumed dead” for a year.
Why it’s great: On its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project grossed $1.5 million on only 27 screens. All screens were packed, and people waited in line for hours to be sure of a ticket. Since then, the film has grossed $249 million worldwide. That’s a hell of an ROI. What’s amazing is that it was 1997 – pre social media. Unsurprisingly others have tried to copy the “mockumentary” approach, but none have come even close to that kind of success.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The stunt: The first Macy's Day Parade was held on November 27, 1924. The parade originally featured Macy's employees and live animals from the Central Park Zoo. Floats, instead of balloons, were the main attraction. An estimated 250,000 spectators attended that first parade. Today, about 3.5 million people attend and another 50 million viewers will tune into the live television broadcast.
Why it’s great: Simply put, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become part of the American ethos. No amount of advertising spend could put Macy’s name in front of so many people or more closely associate it with an important cultural touchstone. (In my house, we try not to talk about Christmas until Santa closes out the Macy’s parade. Ergo, no Macy’s, no Christmas.)
The stunt: In the early 1900’s there was a French newspaper called “The Bicycle.” It later became “The Car.” It often sponsored bicycle races. However, in 1903 the struggling paper needed to do something to boost circulation, so they organized another bike race. But this one was different, it covered 1500 miles! Today we call it the Tour de France.
Why it’s great: This stunt is an example of taking something rather mundane and pushing it to the extreme. The race gained notoriety because of its grueling course and ridiculous length. When your PR stunt becomes an annual tradition that’s known worldwide, I’d say you’ve hit the mark.
When it comes to successful PR stunts, it really is a matter of “go big or go home.” (Here’s a look at a few that went the other way.)