How to Pull up a Terrific Publicity Stunt

In marketing, the only thing more compelling than stories is watching them in action. Here is how to create the magic.

Photo by Jam Agency

In 2008 and around this time of the year, the Australian daredevil Robbie Maddison, in a publicity feat for Red Bull, dropped the ball to 2009 by flying his bike 120 feet through the air and landing on a hotel’s arch of 96-foot-high. It was spectacular!

More than a decade later today, and this outrageous performance still lived on as one of the greatest publicity stunts the world has ever seen — reaching far and wide in a way no local or digital advertisement ever could. Talk about new year’s good luck for Red Bull, huh?

In the following years, as YouTube and viral video grew in popularity and influence, so too did the number of these stunts. In fact, in the last few years alone, we’ve seen related performances of famous movie scenes, songs, plays, and dozens of others, both by known and unknown artists all around the world, in efforts to (mostly) elevate a product or strengthen a brand’s identity.

This is evident as to how powerful publicity stunts can be. And when done right, even the weakest brand, with little or close to no resources, can leverage them to reach unexpected heights. With our usage of social media soaring up every day, it’s never too late to create a memorable media stunt. One could even argue that there has never been a better time — with, I don’t know, the constant change in global trends and all.

Pulling up a publicity stunt, nonetheless, is perhaps the only creative exploit you shouldn’t consider pursuing unless you’re thoroughly willing to do it right. Now more than ever, deciding to go with Nike’s Just Do It, might easily cost you a huge fine by relevant authorities or, even worse, land you in jail.

The highest price to pay in a stunt backfiring isn’t the money you’ll be losing, or the little dementors you’ll be facing in jail (trust me, you do not want to find out whether or not they are real), but your brand’s reputation that you’ll be throwing out the window. It is the exasperation that comes with being at the forefront of your audience’s mind, as it is what you initially craved, only that it is for all the wrong reasons.

Which begs the question: Why chance bad publicity when a good one also sells? Why shock your audience so badly, leaving them with no option but to kiss goodbye to the trust they had for your brand when you can wow them into crowning you the king of your niche?

Instead of adding to the countless half-baked marketing stunts in the past, here, my friend, I compiled a comprehensive and practical guide to pulling a stunt that is anything but ill and harebrained; a badass stunt if you will.

Defining Your goal

The goal of a stunt being to increase brand awareness is reasonable but too vague. Every successfully executed stunt will already make people more aware of your brand. And while it will be nice to have wads of coverage, going viral isn’t a goal either — owing to (hello) its unpredictability.

Promoting a new product or strengthening your brand identity is a great start. It is often no surprise that stripping this part to the bone might reveal how you might not even need any stunt, to begin with, in achieving the goal you set.

Getting Your Audience Onboard

Jonathan Crowl of Skyword, a content marketing company based in Boston, pointed that while pulling a stunt might bring great news to your company, refusing to define your audience is the first thing that could go wrong with the whole process.

“Like any other event, publicity stunts are a branding opportunity that can directly engage a target audience. But that’s precisely where a stunt can go wrong: If it doesn’t have a clear understanding of its audience and how the stunt aligns with the brand, it could be a setup for an expensive, embarrassing waste of resources.”

Defining your audience is only a step in getting on board with them about your stunt. A lot more followed: Digging deeper into what they find amusing and staying far away from whatever they’re likely to find offensive.

If your stunt is for a new product, have the stunt projects their most painful part of the problem you rise to solve. What feature of the product is paramount to these people? Comfort? Ease of use? Price? Or perhaps it is that these people appreciate their local traditions above anything else.

No one knows both your product and your audience more than you. And that is what to play with, not another brand’s ball.

Aligning the Stunt with a Definite Value

The type of stunt you choose should be in line with the goal you had in mind from the start. It should reflect the message you’re trying to get across.

Red Bull, being an energy drink, got Robbie Maddison to fly on his bike because flying that height on a bike represents energy, power, or strength. Flip this anyhow it will you’ll still end up with something of the sort. The brand’s identity is then perfectly represented through this stunt, especially seeing the company’s slogan reads: “Red Bull gives you wings.

Smacking a logo everywhere in a publicity scene doesn’t necessitate
mean the brand is communicating the right message, so much as staring at the Latin alphabets for the first time doesn’t magically make us get what each letter represents.

Choose your stunt wisely. “Pulling a stunt for the sake of getting short-term attention is often a waste of time and money,” says Gjoko Muratovsk.

Making It Engaging

Analyze any amazing stunt you can lay hands on, and you’ll see that they are all satisfying to watch (even if oddly so).

People want to look cool, and most of the time, they achieve just that by sharing cool stuff with their peers. The year is 2020, and it has never been easier to share stuff. “Hey, guys. Look what I stumbled on today!” one, two, a hundred, thousands of people can easily tweet.

There are many ways to make your stunt easy for your audience to engage:

  1. Make it fun: Anything giving out the “we are corporate” vibe isn’t welcome, unless it is deliberate.
  2. Make it compelling: Let the stunt be unique to your audience, as opposed to what they’re used to seeing. Give them something that will make them recognize that you know and understand them well. “Familiarity breeds enjoyment,” says psychology.

Making It Scale

We would all like for our stunts to win media coverage, but in the words of Steve Bryant, a one-time president to Publicis Dialog’s Seattle office: “Without good pictures, it’s not going to fly.”

Bryant isn’t all words and no action. When he helped PetSmart, the leading North American pet company, Bryant and his team did a job well done for PetSmart to made headlines — with one of the reporters covering the event taking a dog home after his wife saw the made-over mutt on TV.

Anything visually appealing is easily shareable on digital media. As such, making the scene photo-friendly will make it more likely for eye-witnesses to share your campaign.

Another bonus to making your campaign easily scalable is by tying it to a larger event, as Red Bull did with the New year's eve of 2009.

Accommodating People’s Reactions

Good media coverage only lasts for a little while. To have your campaign last longer, it needs a home.

Protect Your Life, an iconic stunt by the international ad agency M&C Saatchi in 2013, is proof of how paramount it is to build a home for your campaign. What they did was have the words #L1F3 (LIFE) staining every part of the stunt scene. It is no surprise that, in just a few hours, the hashtag #L1F3 trended #1 on Twitter in Italy, generating over 5 million media impressions.

“Monkey sees, monkey do,” goes the saying, which fits quite nicely here. This hashtag was the home for Protect Your Life. For a lasting reach of your message, you need to build one too.

Things to Avoid in Your Stunt

Being offensive

This goes without saying, but it has never been easier to offend others. With your stunt, be extra careful not to insult other people’s religion, race, or traditions. And unironically this is also one of the surest ways for your brand’s reputation to go down the drain.

LifeLock CEO suffered 13 cases of identity theft and the company paid a hefty sum of $12 million to the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising. Why? Because the company insulted the public’s intelligence by sharing its CEO’s Social Security Number on the company’s website — at least that’s what those that hacked him felt.

Don’t let an adventure in creativity lead your brand into the abyss. Always prioritize people at each of these processes.

Seeking publicity for publicity’s sake

Rita’s Twitter misfire in 2014, begging her followers for retweets, is a great example of why one should never pursue publicity for publicity’s sake. Save yourself the trouble.

Setting high expectations

If you’re a writer who publishes online, then you already know how awful it feels to publish your best writing only for others to act as if you don’t exist. Your stunt will likely do great, but for your benefit, reserve a part of you to prepare for the worse.

Dismissing minor details

Strive to make your stunt flawless.

Remember the car giveaway by Pontiac in 2004? Exactly. While everyone was elated they had won a brand new Pontiac G6, the media focused on how generous Oprah was. Though the campaign wasn’t a total loss to Pontiac, it might as well have been.


Stunts are exciting to execute, as they are outside the scope of our usual work. But this excitement shouldn’t blind you to the impact they have on your business. At the end of the day, they are still marketing campaigns and should be treated as such.

A time-consuming and carefully planned stunt, however, doesn’t, in any way, mean it is going to blow. Snapple’s huge popsicle wouldn’t have melted if that was the case, and Snoop Dogg distributing Christmas gifts wouldn’t have made The Guardian’s greatest publicity stunts.

Humans will keep setting the creative bar farther up though, and stunts will likely be around for several decades to come. In branding, many companies already owe this campaign hefty gratitude for what it made the corporations today. The game is not over. There still exist streets to mesmerize your audience. But don’t just do it, do it right.

Entrepreneur, Writer. Carving a place for myself in this world.

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