Long before we all became professionals in this industry, the term “PR stunt” had been thrown around regularly. Personally, I think PR stunts are extremely exciting to read about and brainstorm because even though the term may have a slightly negative connotation the truth is simple – they work.
Like anything else, PR stunts vary in size and tactics while evolving through time. Some are so obvious they’re practically jumping out in front of your face and others are much more nuanced. There’s been countless incredibly effective PR stunts through time. Some of my favorites are historical moments, plays on pop culture or causal activations. Let’s take a trip down PR memory lane where I’ll provide a refresher on some of my favorite PR stunts as well as reflect on my thoughts on why they were so successful.
The Boston Tea Party – 1773
How many times has the Boston Tea Party been taught in history classes? It wasn’t until my first Public Relations class in college that I realized the Boston Tea Party was really just a PR stunt. Even back in 1773, the art of PR was a necessity and effective.
- REFRESH – Tired of Great Britain’s tax laws, a group of Boston Patriots raided three British ships on December 16, 1773 and dumped 342 containers of tea into the Boston harbor as a direct protest of the British Tea Tax that was being implemented.
- REFLECT – Americans took something so iconic and important to the people of Britain to get their attention and cause a reaction. The immediate outcome might not have been what the Americans had intended, but it broke the barrier of communication that the British had put up. This is especially relevant in our industry today because of the ever-growing crowded media space and consumer clutter.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – 1924
As many times as I tell myself I won’t be tuning into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I know that come Thanksgiving morning I will be sitting on my couch watching, waiting for the exciting moment when [spoiler] Santa arrives at the end, instead of helping my mom cook dinner.
- REFRESH – The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was held on November 27, 1924 and featured only Macy’s employees and live animals from the zoo rather than the performers, floats and balloons that flood the New York City streets today. The goal of the parade was to draw attention to the brand’s new store in Manhattan.
- REFLECT – The parade is iconic and now a part of a major American holiday. I wish I was a fly on the wall in that original meeting where Macy’s executives pitched this idea. I feel like a parade down Broadway is eerily similar to what you might hear during a Coyne brainstorm if challenged to draw attention to a new store. At Coyne, we are always looking for the most impactful ideas and ways to make the impossible, possible. To me, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a clear example of an idea that may have seemed far-fetched but turned into (and has remained) such a symbol in America for almost 95 years.
Asda’s Free Eye Tests – 2004
My passion for soccer started and ended with the same team of about twelve kids who played on a recreational league until eighth grade (coached by my dad). However, I do find myself catching the occasional “footy match” and every four years I will definitely tune into the World Cup.
- REFRESH – A moment that English and Portuguese football fanatics will never forget. During the 2004 Euros football championship, Portugal and England were paired against each other in the quarterfinals, which ended up going to a shootout all because a Swiss referee disallowed a goal by an English player in 89th minute of the game. Of course, this caused outrage in England to the point where the referee had to go into hiding for a bit. Asda, a British supermarket chain responded with an opportunistic play to offer all Swiss nationals free eye tests and even sent the referee a letter offering him an eye test.
- REFLECT – Not only does this cheeky stunt make me laugh – it also shows the importance and effectiveness of opportunistic ideas. Staying current with pop culture, sports, the news – essentially the world in general – can lead to some really great stunts that elevate a brand’s awareness while also showing its personality.
Candy Land’s 60th Birthday – 2009
When I was younger, I was Candy Land’s number one fan. I had to fulfill my sweet tooth in some way every day, whether that be the board game or my savior, the computer game, which allowed me to play alone. Side note – I have curly hair, so I really identified with Princess Lolly, even though her signature curls were the perfect shade of pink.
- REFRESH – In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the iconic Candy Land board game, the famous Lombard Street in San Francisco was transformed into the game’s brightly colored game board. The game board wasn’t enough, an actual life-size game of Candy Land took place with oversized cards to dictate the moves of the teams playing and appearances by King Kandy and Princess Frostine for encouragement.
- REFLECT – As someone with such an emotional connection to the game Candy Land, this stunt really resonated with me. It brought me back to my childhood and made me want to drop everything, call my friends and start a game on that beautifully colored board. This stunt was one I remember seeing in the news, not knowing I’d end up working for Coyne PR, the agency that created it!
Burger King and National Bullying Prevention Month – 2017
Did I ever think I would cry at a Burger King PR stunt? No. But, did it happen? Yes, it did.
- REFRESH – Burger King released a video for National Bullying Prevention Month in partnership with No Bully to highlight the importance of speaking up when someone is being bullied. In one of the brand’s locations they served beat up Whopper Jr. sandwiches knowing that customers would complain. All the while, a kid is getting bullied by some other kids in the restaurant and only very few people speak up.
- REFLECT – I loved this … really loved it. I think it was a genius way to show the reality that the majority of people are more willing to speak up when something directly affects them. It was a nice change of pace to see Burger King getting in front of their diverse audience in a more serious way that seemed genuine and not promotional for their Whopper Jr. sandwich.
It’s interesting to think about how PR stunts have evolved through time. Next time your client says, “we need something stunty,” remember that the PR stunt spectrum is wide and vast. There’s certainly no denying that PR stunts work – and hey, maybe that’s why they’ve been around for so long!