Should you try a publicity stunt? Publicity stunts have worked well for many businesses, but it seems just as many businesses fall flat. What makes a great publicity stunt, and should you try one? The following attempts to answer those questions.

What makes a great publicity stunt?

Not all publicity stunts are created equal, but there are some common denominators in those that are the most successful.  Those include:

  • They’re unique: Great publicity stunts have never been done before. They attract media attention because they make news.
  • They’re clever: Clever publicity stunts get the greatest attention, because they make for good stories.
  • They’re relevant: The best publicity stunts are relevant to your business and your customers.
  • They strive to make a point: A good publicity stunt carries a message, even if that message is that your company likes to have a bit of fun.

Entrepreneur has published a list of the top ten most successful marketing stunts. Among them are:

  • The 1996 April Fool’s Day Taco Bell stunt in which the company took out a full-page ad in the New York Times proclaiming it had purchased the Liberty Bell – and would be renaming it the “Taco Liberty Bell.”
  • The 1999 stunt in which the company paid Halfway, Oregon, to change its name to for a year.
  • The 1998 Burger King “left-handed Whopper” campaign.

Each of these campaigns was a major success because they were unique, clever, and relevant. They also conveyed brand messages. They made generating publicity seem easy – but be forewarned that pulling off a successful publicity stunt isn’t just a walk in the park. That same Entrepreneur article additionally listed several failed PR stunts, including:

  • The 2005 Snapple stunt to make the world’s biggest Popsicle. The premise is spot-on: unique, clever, relevant, and meaningful – but the company made a serious oversight when they placed their frozen treat outside on an 80-degree day and it rapidly melted.
  • The 2002 incident when Vodafone deployed streakers during a rugby match.
  • The 2006 Paramount gaffe: the studio had “Mission: Impossible” “bomb” placed in newsstands, with predictably panicky results.

The problem in each of these failed stunts was that the companies lacked foresight. They never asked “what if?” or fully explored potential negative consequences. Snapple didn’t take the weather into account. Vodafone didn’t think about the repercussions of breaking the law. Paramount didn’t consider how people would react to an object that looked like a bomb – or at the very least vastly underestimated that reaction.

The lesson? Don’t get so excited about how a publicity stunt might help your brand that you fail to see how it might hurt your brand as well.

Should you try a publicity stunt?

So, should you try a publicity stunt? When done right, you stand to earn incredible exposure and, very likely, increased sales. Before you commit to a publicity stunt, however, be sure to have the following:

  • The right stunt: As noted, you should be able to deliver a meaningful message in a unique, clever, and relevant manner.
  • A contingency plan: List everything that could possibly go wrong with your publicity stunt, and decide whether it’s worth the risk (note: if someone could get hurt or arrested, nix the stunt). If the stunt is worth the risk, make sure you have a plan in place in the event something does go wrong.
  • The budget: Make sure you have the budget to pull off your publicity stung. Taco Bell ook out an ad in the New York times, but you might not have that kind of budget. This isn’t to say you need an enormous budget to pull of a successful publicity stunt. A flash mob only needs a video camera and volunteers/participants.

You don’t need to launch a national campaign to host a successful publicity stunt – even the smallest microbusiness can boost business by harnessing the power of publicity. Just be sure to carefully plan your publicity stunt well in advance to avoid issues and get the greatest possible return. Here are some other tips for pulling off a successful publicity stunt:

  • Videotape your stunt and share it on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media outlets. The more visually entertaining your publicity stunt, the greater its likelihood of going viral.
  • Use press releases to invite media members, if appropriate, and also to follow up after your publicity stunt. Though a great publicity stunt should generate its own press coverage, press releases can help clarify its intent.
  • Print postcards or invitation cards to invite members of the public to your publicity stunt, if appropriate. You can also use social media as an invitation tool.
  • Research successful and failed publicity stunts to study what works and what doesn’t, and why. You’ll also find inspiration for your own publicity stunt.

If you do your homework, plan well, and prepare for contingencies, you can create a publicity stunt that helps propel your brand into the forefront of customers’ minds. Keep in mind that though the immediate benefits of a well-organized publicity stunt can be huge, the long-term benefits can be immeasurable: once your brand becomes relevant to the media, they’ll want to cover you more. Above all, create a great story to enjoy the greatest success.