A successful and witty PR stunt can quickly go viral, resulting in a company seeing a massive boost in sales and an increase in their stock values. Considering this, it is no real surprise that so many marketing campaigns are designed to try and go viral. The issue with this is sometimes these PR stunts can fall flat with their target audiences, resulting in negative PR and disgruntled customers. In this Top 10, we will take a look at ten of the more absurd PR stunts that had the opposite effect than was intended.
10: Snapple’s World’s Largest Popsicle
In Union Square of New York City in June of 2005, Snapple, in an attempt to surpass a Guinness World record, decided to turn their fan-favorite fruity beverage into the world’s largest popsicle using their at the time new kiwi-strawberry Snapple on Ice to garner consumer attention. The issue that turned this PR stunt into a PR nightmare? Snapple made a giant popsicle. In June. The giant Snapple popsicle started quickly melting under the noonday sun, creating a mini-flood of slippery, sticky fruit beverage. This resulted in NYPD closing down the surrounding streets out of fear of pedestrians, cyclists and automobiles possibly sliding in the slush.
9: DiGiorno’s #WhyIStayed #Failure
The #WhyIStayed trending tag on the social media juggernaut Twitter started in response to the reasons why women stay in a relationship with an abusive partner. The hashtag garnered a lot of attention and opened up a lot of revealing and helpful conversations about domestic abuse and the effects it has on women in our society. The marketing person in charge of the DiGiorno’s corporate Twitter account decided to use the hashtag in an effort to quickly cash in on the traffic that the hashtag was generating.
However, this person completely misread the point of the #WhyIStayed hashtag, as they Tweeted out the crass and inappropriate Tweet “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” They later had to release an apology Tweet after sudden–and understandable–backlash from trying to hijack such a serious trending hashtag to sell frozen pizzas, “A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.”
8: Cartoon Network Becomes a Suspected Terrorist Group
Cartoon Network decided to pull a PR stunt to get people hyped about their new movie Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, which was based on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force tv show that aired on the network’s Adult Swim programming block. They pulled off this PR stunt by placing LED placards that resembled characters from the show known as Mooninites around the cities of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. People in the area started reporting to the police department seeing suspicious-looking people leaving boxes around the city, causing the Boston Police Department to falsely conclude that these boxes were some sort of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This naturally led to relatively wide-spread panic in these areas and caused a lot of backlash and negative news coverage for the network and the movie itself.
7: Walkers Crisps Tweets out Pictures of Serial Killers and Pedophiles
In 2017, Walkers Crisps (the UK-based Frito-Lay’s brand) invited Twitter users to send their selfies to its corporate Twitter account, after which the pictures would automatically be added to a short animation that featured brand ambassador Gary Lineker appearing to hold up a snap of their face. Images were seemingly added to the animated videos by an automatic Twitter bot, and soon many Twitter users decided to take advantage of this. The result was many instances of notorious murderers and pedophiles–including Peter Sutcliffe, Harold Shipman, and Jimmy Saville among others–to appear in the #WalkersWave video clips that were being shared by the official Walkers Crisps corporate account. This, of course, did not lead to much positive PR for the PepsiCo subsidiary.
6: KFC Helps a Competitor
KFC in 2009 decided to allow consumers to visit Oprah.com where, for the following 24 hour period, they were able to download a coupon for a meal that included two pieces of the company’s new grilled chicken menu item, two side orders, and a biscuit. Oprah Winfrey advertised this promotion on her daytime talk show, causing a wide-spread coupon craze that would bring a massive amount of consumer traffic to KFC locations around the nation. The issue? KFC did not anticipate the number of people that would be trying to use these coupons and quickly realized that they would not be able to keep up with the demand and would actually lose a lot of money because of the promotion. Due to this, they decided to stop honoring these coupons shortly after the promotion started. This caused the KFC competitor, El Pollo Loco, to announce that they would honor these KFC coupons with their equivalent meal. This PR stunt led to KFC being sued and one of their biggest competitors to gain many new customers.
5: McDonalds’ Gaffe of Olympic Proportions
For the 1984 Olympic Games, McDonald’s decided to give out scratch-off tickets that had the name of an Olympic event on it. If an American won any medal in the event printed on the ticket, then you would win free food. If America won Gold in that event, you would be able to get a free Big Mac; a Silver medal was good for a free order of french fries, and Bronze was good for a free soda. This PR stunt was supposed to drum up business with minimal risk, as the United States had won 0 medals in the previous Olympics due to a boycott. Unfortunately for the fast food giant, the 1984 Olympics is the year that the United State’s biggest competitors–the USSR, Germany and North Korea–decided to abstain from competing as a form of protest. This meant that the American Olympic athletes brought home 174 medals that year, with nearly half of them being Gold medals. This caused McDonald’s to lose millions of dollars in free food.
4: Capcom’s Resident Evil 5 Scavenger Hunt
To promote their upcoming Resident Evil game, Resident Evil 5, publisher Capcom decided to host a scavenger hunt around the city of London. What could have been a fun PR stunt had it been organized properly turned out to be a scary PR nightmare of epic proportions for the company; scarier even than the horror game that they were promoting. The stunt involved hiding realistic looking body parts around the city and encouraging people to find all of the body parts on a scavenger hunt list, after which they would bring them to a central location, and the winner of the scavenger hunt would win a trip for two to Africa. The problem with this PR stunt is that many of the limbs went missing from the designated hiding locations and the organizers were unable to track them down. This wouldn’t necessarily be a huge deal under normal circumstances, as you would think that the organizers would take into consideration that many people like to keep collectibles like this as souvenirs. The real problem was the fact that these fake limbs used chicken livers for the added gore value, so they had to urge people to dispose of the limbs safely and responsibly. Residents of London complained to police during the competition, but no charges were filed.
3: Mountain Dew’s “Dub the Dew” Goes Awry
Mountain Dew opened up a contest to the Internet in 2012 to name their new green apple-infused flavor of Mountain Dew. Unfortunately for the marketing team for Mountain Dew, they forgot exactly who they were dealing with; the Internet. Sites such as 4chan caught wind of this PR stunt and decided to take advantage of the situation using their twisted sense of humor. This led to many inappropriate names topping the online rankings, such as “Diabeetus,” “Gushing Granny,” “Soda,” and “Sierra Mist.” The name that won out to all the other names was the unfortunate “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong.” Additionally, the site was hacked which led to many users receiving a pop-up message that caused them to get RickRoll’d–taking them to a video of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit single “Never Gonna Give You Up.” This PR stunt didn’t provide Mountain Dew with any viable names for its new flavor and led to a lot of negative media attention and outrage from consumers due to the offensive names that were topping the polls and the unwanted RickRollings.
2: LifeLock’s CEO Needs Better LifeLock
LifeLock’s CEO Todd Davis was so confident in his product’s ability to protect its customer’s identities that he posted his social security number publicly on the LifeLock website as a PR stunt. This turned out to be a bad decision as LifeLock wasn’t as thorough as he initially thought it was, and Mr. Davis also underestimated the power of the internet. By publicly posting his SSN, the CEO of this identity protection community had his identity stolen. Thirteen times. For instance, in June 2007, it was reported that Davis had been the victim of identity theft after someone had used his identity to obtain a $500 USD loan from a check-cashing company. Davis only discovered the crime after the check-cashing company called his wife’s cellphone to recover the unpaid debt that was owed to them. About four months after that story was reported, Davis’ identity was stolen yet again by someone that was located in Albany, Georgia, who had used Davis’ identity to open an AT&T/Cingular Wireless account using his Social Security number. This PR stunt proves that no matter how confident you are in your product, you probably shouldn’t underestimate how resourceful people can be. And also that you should not publicly post your SSN, which should have gone without saying.
1: Pepsi Doesn’t Want to Give Away a Harrier Jet
In 1999, PepsiCo started a new PR marketing campaign by introducing Pepsi Points. Consumers could redeem these points in exchange for various products and prizes. PepsiCo as a joke listed an AV-8 Harrier II jump jet (which was valued at $33.8 million at the time) for 7,000,000 Pepsi Points, thinking nobody would ever be able to get that many points. But, of course, somebody did. John Leonard did not collect 7,000,000 Pepsi Points through the purchase of Pepsi products but instead sent a certified check for $700,008.50 as permitted expressly by the contest rules. Leonard had 15 existing points, paid an additional $0.10 a point for the remaining 6,999,985 points and paid a $10 shipping and handling fee. This surprised PepsiCo who then refused to honor the exchange, leading to John Leonard suing the corporation. Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the court sided with PepsiCo. This PR stunt did not cost PepsiCo the $33.8 million USD price tag of having to give away a Harrier jet, but it still led to a lot of negative press and many consumers viewing Pepsi as being unfair, as Leonard followed the promotion’s rules and technically should have been allowed to exchange his 7,000,000 Pepsi Points for the advertised prize.