Year of the Stunt: June 2005
The Stunt: Snapple attempted to erect the world's largest popsicle, made of frozen Snapple juice, twenty-five feet tall and weighing 17.5 tons.
What Went Wrong: It melted. As a crane pulled the frozen treat into an upright position in Times Square in New York City, someone at Snapple made the decision to abruptly call the whole thing off--it was very clear that something was wront. With the temperature at eighty degrees, the popsicle was melting fast, sending a flood of kiwi-strawberry-flavored fluid pouring onto the streets of downtown Manhattan and forcing innocent bystanders to flee from the sticky, sugary mess, according to the Associated Press. (Apparently, Snapple executives understood that the snack would melt but not as fast as what happened that day.) Firefighters then closed off several streets and used hoses to wash away the melted gunk.
Lesson Learned: It's pretty obvious, isn't it? Stunts take planning--a lot of it--and not taking even the smallest detail, such as the weather, into account can really trip you up. That may explain why Snapple's more recent stunts have been slightly more safe: When the New York City-based marketing company, EMCI, contacted them to be the sole sponsor on a Boston radio station for six weeks, in effect giving listeners ad-free radio, or at least less ad clutter, Snapple snapped at the idea.
Year of the Stunt: 1990
The Stunt: Jim McCafferty, a magician turned marketer, was trying to promote his marketing startup business and decided to pull something worthy of Houdini to advertise his new venture. As the opening act for a concert, McCafferty allowed himself to be put in a straightjacket and then enclosed in a welded-shut steel cage and hoisted by a crane to the height of 300 feet. He was supposed to escape from the jacket and cage in two minutes and secure himself to a harness before a timer released the cage and allowed it to crash to the ground.
What Happened Next: While he escaped his straight jacket relatively quickly, the cage malfunctioned and he was trapped inside with less than a minute to go. Struggling with the cage, he scrambled onto its roof with 10 seconds to spare. But before he could attach himself to the harness, his time ran out and the cage dropped, plunging 60 feet before Jim clicked himself onto the harness, just seconds before the cage smashed into the ground. The crowd, thinking this was part of the act, loved it. Meanwhile, McCafferty was placed on a stretcher and carried to an ambulance, suffering from first- and second-degree rope burns. Before he was taken away, he asked one of his guests, a potential client, what he thought of the act. "I love the illusion of drama," the guy said, apparently not realizing how close Jim came to dying. "I truly didn't believe you were going to make it. And that fall, it was brilliant. It scared the daylights out of everyone." McCafferty didn't miss a beat: "Yeah, but just imagine what I can do for your brand."
The Lesson: In many ways, McCafferty's stunt did work--he has a multimillion dollar marketing business today--but we can't in good conscience say this stunt was a success. Marketing stunts are a game of chance, and if something can't go wrong, it's probably not much of a stunt. But gamble with the company, not yourself. No entrepreneur should ever risk his or her life.
Year of the Stunt: 2002
The Stunt: At a rugby match between New Zealand and Australia, two streakers interrupted the game, wearing nothing but the Vodafone logo.
What Happened Next: The police got involved, arresting the streakers before the game was over. Sure, there was a lot of attention and publicity from the media, and if you feel that even bad publicity is good publicity, then consider exposing your company by having somebody expose themselves. Just know that Grahame Maher, one of the CEOs of Vodafone, an international telecommunications company, was forced to apologize for encouraging these two guys to streak through the game--and thus break the law. The company also ended up donating $30,000 pounds to a nonprofit campaign aimed at reducing sports injuries.
The Lesson: If you have to break a law to pull off your marketing stunt, it's probably not a good idea. In fact, it's not a bad idea to consider the law even if you aren't breaking it. Paramount Pictures learned that the hard way earlier this year when it teamed up with the Los Angeles Times to rig 4,500 randomly selected newspaper boxes around the city. Unwitting customers paid for the paper and opened the rack, unaware that the Mission: Impossible theme song was about to start playing. It sounds harmless enough, but the machinery that played the music had red wires stuck out of it and looked like an explosive device. A bomb squad was called in at one location and actually blew up a newsrack before learning what was really going on.
Year of the Stunt: 2005
The Stunt: Sony had graffiti artists design--and spray paint--various pictures of their PlayStation Portable at several locations around New York City.
What Happened Next: Many people hated the look of the ads--after all, who wants graffiti in a city--and others saw it as a blatant attempt to be cool, or to get cheap labor from struggling teenagers. An online petition was started with comments like, "Stop cynically exploiting graffiti artists." Another declared, "I will never buy a Sony product again."
The Lesson: If you don't have street cred, really examine whether you have any chance of getting any. If something about your company or brand doesn't have it, it might be worth living with that.
Year of the Stunt: 2004
The Stunt: If you haven't already heard, Oprah Winfrey gave away a Pontiac to each member of her studio audience--her entire audience--for free one day.
What Happened Next: Sure, the audience members were thrilled and the marketing stunt made news in all corners of the world. But advertising experts have argued that the real winner of this marketing stunt was Oprah--not the car manufacturer. Who actually today remembers that the car given away was a Pontiac G6 sedan--or even that it was a Pontiac? Everybody was applauding Oprah Winfrey for her generosity, but not Pontiac, which had come up with the idea for the giveaway. And there was some bad publicity, too: The winners were upset when they had to pay a huge tax bill for their gift. And for those who did pay attention and try to buy a Pontiac G6 in the immediate media aftermath, the new sedan wasn't yet available at many dealerships.
The Lesson: --if you partner with somebody really big, every time you're in the same room, you might find that you're not getting any time in the spotlight and you've simply become a prop.
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.