5 Stupid PR Stunts that Failed

December 12, 2014 AJ Bruno: Founder, President

One of the exciting, also terrifying, things about PR is that in order to get any attention, you really have to stand out. This often means taking calculated risks. Usually the biggest problem is not getting enough attention, but once in a while, a brand makes a miscalculation and gets all sorts of the wrong kind of attention. Let’s have a look at a few of these PR moves that flopped.


This one goes in the, “he probably should have seen this coming,” bucket. In 2006, LifeLock CEO, Todd Davis, posted his social security number pretty much everywhere, to prove his faith in the company’s identify protection services. Criminals or hackers, perhaps both, accepted the dare. His identity was stolen thirteen times. It isn’t good when the Federal Trade Commission comes up in a discussion of your PR stunt. The agency fined the company 12 million dollars for deceptive advertising.


The New England Patriots

This recent disaster started innocently enough. In an effort to celebrate reaching 1 million followers on Twitter, the Patriot’s social media crew decided to create digital images of team jerseys featuring people’s Twitter handles. All you had to do was retweet this:


and you'd be sent a digital image with your name on the jersey. The resulting images were also Tweeted from the @Patriots handle. Sadly, some bozo created a horribly racist handle, which was subsequently Tweeted from the Patriots account. (We’re not going to publish it, but if you want to, you can see it here.)

The Patriots did realize that they could be trolled this way and they set up automated filters to reject a set of offensive words, but the one that was used apparently wasn’t on the list. The lesson here is that technology is no substitute for careful human management of your own brand.


Remember when Oprah gave away a car to every member of her audience? Do you remember what kind of car it was? Neither does anyone else. The cars she gave away were Pontiacs. In fact, it was Pontiac that came up with the idea and donated the cars. They were hoping to draw attention to the new G6, but the nation instead, focused on Oprah’s generosity (and the subsequent tax issues faced by the recipients). Aligning yourself with another brand is not a bad idea, but Pontiac was simply eclipsed by the Queen of Talk.

The Department of Defense

On April 27, 2009, some knuckle head at the department of defense thought it would be a great photo op to fly a Boeing 747 and an F-16 jet around the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline near the World Trade Center site. Predictably, New Yorkers were not amused and emergency dispatchers were inundated with calls about a possible terrorist threat. It’s not good when your PR stunt makes the President of the United States, “furious.”


Capital 8 Theaters

It’s hard to say exactly what they were trying to accomplish, but less than a year after a gunman entered a midnight showing of Dark Knight Rises at a Colorado movie theater, killed 12 people and injured 70 others, a Missouri movie theater hired a number people to dress in tactical gear and storm an "Iron Man 3" screening with fake weapons. It doesn’t take a PR genius to guess that this did not end well. Fortunately, no one was hurt.


WKRP in Cincinnati

Luckily, this one was only on TV, but if you haven’t seen WKRP in Cincinnati’s Great Turkey Giveaway (or if it’s been a while), sit back and enjoy!

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