Marketing stunts, while often over the top and cheesy, can sometimes be a real attention-getter for brands. Other times, especially when an idea could have been thought through a little better, the end result is failure — and even tragedy.
Here are five examples of stunts where the marketers involved could have averted disaster with a little more thought.
1. The Crash at Crush — Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad
One of the first publicity stunts on record in the U.S. ended in a literal train wreck. The idea, “The Crash at Crush,” came from William George Crush, who in 1896 set out to promote the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad with a staged train crash in the (also staged) town of Crush, TX. He offered free admission, as well as cheap tickets to anyone riding trains to the event.
The two full-size locomotives ended up making a bigger scene than Crush anticipated. Both boilers exploded on impact, sending hot water and metal careening past the safety area and into the spectators. Three people were killed and several more badly injured. Crush was fired for the event, but then re-hired the next day after the railroad saw how much press the event received — and after deciding the explosion wasn't necessarily his fault.
2. Jim McCafferty's magical mishap – JMP Creative
Jim McCafferty, a former magician who became a marketer, wanted to use his training to promote his startup agency, JMP Creative. In 1990, he set up a stunt in which he was supposed to be enclosed in a welded-shut steel cage wearing a straitjacket, 300 feet above the ground. The escape stunt quickly took a turn for the worse when the cage malfunctioned before he could attach himself to harness. McCafferty fell 60 feet before attaching the harness and was hospitalized for severe rope burns.
Regardless of the fact that McCafferty now has a multimillion dollar company, he could have potentially had nothing at all after that stunt. It’s hard to say whether the attention from the near death experience helped build the agency into what it is today, or if McCafferty is just a very lucky man.
3. Theater's ill-advised S.H.I.E.L.D. run-in — Goodrich Capital 8 Theaters
Last year, Goodrich Capital 8 Theaters in Jefferson City, MO, pulled a publicity stunt that had the country wondering if management was up to date on current events. In an effort to promote “Iron Man 3,” the theater hired actors to dress up as members of the fictional government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. — carrying fake guns and all — and storm into the theater. Understandably, patrons were immediately scared. Several people called 911, prompting a police response, and one war veteran in the room said his post-traumatic stress disorder was set off by the incident.
The stunt happened just a year after the Aurora, CO, "Dark Knight Rises" shooting. The backlash from the media and the community was understandably negative, and the theater was forced to issue a public apology.
4. Dead goldfish – South Australian Government
In an effort to recruit Australian businesses to South Australia, the local government approved and partially funded a publicity stunt that angered animal rights activists. Advantage SA (now Brand South Australia) in 2011 sent fishbowls with goldfish to 55 media executives in South Australia with the message, “Be the big fish in a small pond and come and test the water. SA." Although the fish were given enough food to last six months, most were dead upon arriving to the media executives.
Apparently, Advantage SA didn’t take into account oxygen or other factors that are involved in keeping a fish alive. Animal welfare group RSPCA Australia received a complaint from a South Australia native, but under Australian law, goldfish are not considered “animals.” Whether or not it’s a animal rights issue, sending a dead fish isn't likely to persuade a business to come test the waters.
5. Hold your wee for Wii — KDND 107.9 Radio
A lighthearted promotion titled “hold your wee for Wii” by a California radio station turned deadly for one participant in 2007. As the title suggests, participants were tasked with drinking as much water as possible before going to the restroom. The prize for the participant who drank the most without going “wee”: A Nintendo Wii game system.
After participating in the promotion, 28-year-old Jennifer Strange was found dead in her home. An examination revealed she had passed away from water intoxication, resulting from the amount of water consumed during the Wii contest. The hosts of the show, “Morning Rave,” were ultimately fired.