I’ve spent 20+ years in PR and communications and over that time I’ve seen some amazing PR and marketing stunts by commercial brands and campaign groups that have really captured imaginations and headlines. And I’ve witnessed some absolute shockers that should never have seen the light of day. Here are five of my favourites – good and bad – and what we can learn from them.
- Nike – Colin Kaepernick Just Do it campaign
In 2018, Nike named NFL athlete Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign. Within one month, the unveiling video had garnered more than 80 million views. And as of today – YouTube shows it’s received over 29 million views and overall the campaign created record levels of engagement with the brand.
Yes, this was – strictly speaking – an ad campaign. But there’s no such thing as a single channel campaign any more if you want to be effective and the lines between advertising, PR, and marketing are blurred almost to irrelevance. And yes, I know Nike has some really difficult reputational issues to deal with. But THIS campaign was extraordinary and it did what all great campaigns should do: it ignited a conversation.
Lesson: Be prepared to take a risk (and know your audience)
This campaign almost didn’t happen. In 2016, Kaepernick had been the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racism and police brutality in America. When he left his team the 49ers – no other team would sign him and Nike almost dropped him. The Head of Communications persuaded Nike to stick with Kaepernick. And Nike’s advertising agency persuaded them to use him for this campaign. Yes – it was a risk. They risked angering the NFL, the President (Trump) and all of his supporters and others who opposed Kaepernick’s stance. But Nike calculated that the risk was worth it to reach the prized ‘young, urban market’. And they were right.
- CALM – raising awareness of male suicide
Every two hours, a man takes his own life and yet the stigma around men’s’ mental health means that not enough is being done to encourage and empower men to ask for help. So, in 2018, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), developed a stunt that placed 84 lifelike mannequins on the ledges of a prominent media building in London, UK to raise awareness of male suicide. According to CALM, 34% more people reached out for help in the immediate aftermath of the campaign. And the campaign – which also secured over 400k signatures to an online petition – provided a catalyst for the Government announcement of the first UK minister for suicide prevention alongside the first-ever Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in London.
Lesson: Collaboration is key
A PR stunt is only as good as the outreach that supports it. This campaign was a collaboration between Adam & Eve DDB (ad agency), W Communications (PR agency); ITV (leading UK independent television network); and CALM. There is no doubt that it was an arresting stunt and the image of 84 mannequins on a London rooftop is not one most people will easily forget. But, it was the partnership with ITV’s prime time “This Morning” programme – who dedicated three days of programming to male suicide – that gave this campaign such incredible reach.
- Snapple – World’s Largest Ice Lolly
We have to go back to 2005 for one of my favourite PR stunts gone wrong. Snapple came up with the idea of going for the Guinness World Record for largest ‘popsicle’ (or ‘ice lolly’ if you’re British). Where was this huge iced confection to be unveiled? Downtown Manhattan. And when? At the start of the Summer. Can you spot the flaw in this plan?
The giant “Snappsicle” — which was 35,000 pounds and 25 feet tall – arrived in New York on a freezer truck and was then lowered by crane in Manhattan. It was a warm day. As it often is AT THE START OF SUMMER IN NEW YORK (sorry for the shouty caps but really!). So guess what? The Snappsicle began to melt. Snapple pink liquid covered the streets. Police and fire departments had to be called in to help manage the crowds and start the cleaning process, sending out an alert that stated: “A giant Popsicle being displayed by Snapple has melted in the heat and sun and spilled all over 17th Street. F.D. on scene attempting to wash down the roadway — sticky goo all over the area.” Priceless!
Lesson: Apply some common sense
Need I say more? But seriously – when developing a stunt, think about it from all angles including what could go wrong. And be prepared to change your mind and your plans.
- Adidas – Boston Marathon Email
In 2017, Adidas developed an email marketing campaign targeting customers who participated in the Boston Marathon. The campaign was designed to congratulate runners and capitalise on Adidas’ sponsorship of the race. Unfortunately, the subject line simply read “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” Clearly whoever drafted, edited and approved this text didn’t consider the fact that only four years earlier, the horrific Boston Marathon bombing had claimed three lives and injured more than 250 people. Adidas immediately issued an apology but they had caused widespread offence.
Lesson: Sense-checking is essential
Sometimes when you’ve spent hours fine-tuning your text, it can be hard to see the mistakes and the faults. Always get someone else to sense-check it. A colleague, a friend, your Mum. Doesn’t matter – just someone who a) wasn’t involved in drafting the text b) can proofread and c) has some common sense (see above).
- ASOS – Tinder Model
Thea Chippendale uses the Tinder dating app. She has a range of lovely photos including one of her wearing a pink dress from the online fashion retailer ASOS. One of her ‘potential matches’ disliked her dress in the photo and went out of his way to let her know. Thea tweeted the messages she had received from this ungallant suitor in which he stated that her outfit was a ‘charity shop job’. Her tweet – using the hashtag #menaretrash – went viral receiving nearly 100,000 likes and 7,000 retweets. A sharp-eyed PR person at ASOS spotted this and promptly made Thea a model – in the dress – on its site; tweeting an image of her with a message ‘@theachippendale Swipe right to see who had the last laugh’. Not only did ASOS get lots of kudos on social media but they generated great press coverage too.
Lesson: Be ready to react
Some of the best PR stunts aren’t planned – they are dreamed up in reaction to something else that’s captivated the public’s attention. From a social media meme that’s gone viral to the announcement of a Royal baby – be ready to react and hitch your campaign to a topical bandwagon.