10 Advertising and PR Stunt Ideas to Get Your Brand Noticed

Want to Grab the Spotlight? Start Here.

Michael Jackson HIStory
Getty Images

If you want to get a great return on investment (ROI) for your advertising and public relations campaign, stunts are a fantastic way to get thousands of free dollars in earned media. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, earned media is publicity generated by your campaign, stunt, or promotion, and it’s something you do not pay for. This comes in the form of TV and radio news reports, write-ups in newspapers and magazines, mentions on all the social media sites, plus shares by the general public.

If you do a stunt well, people will do all the heavy lifting for you. Almost everyone carries both a camera and a video camera in their pocket these days, and they are more than happy to take photos and movies that they can share online. If, that is, it’s worth sharing.

So, how do you grab their attention? What can you do that will actually make thousands, if not millions, of people advertise your brand or product for you? Well, these 10 ways are a great start. Just remember, don’t rip-off other stunts already done and in the media. It’s not as shareable if it’s been done before, and it also makes you look tacky.

1. Do Something First

Ideally, something very entertaining or impactful. And you need to consider the context of the world’s first attempt, and how it relates to what you’re selling. It’s no good being the first CEO to sit in a bathtub filled with baked beans for 48 hours if you’re selling car insurance.

What does one have to do with the other? A classic recent example of a world’s first stunt that paired beautifully with the brand was the Red Bull Stratos Space Jump. You will have heard of it, every news outlet and online source covered it. In 2012, Felix Baumgartner became the person in history to break the sound barrier without the help of a machine.

He literally jumped to Earth from a capsule in space; over 23 miles, reaching incredible speeds. The stunt pulled in over 8 million live viewers, and Red Bull was seen throughout the jump.

2. Poke Fun at a Competitor

There is a fine line to walk here. You have to make sure you’re not coming across as too snarky, or over-indulging in schadenfreude. But this is business, and it can generate a lot of buzz when you openly pour scorn on the failure of a competitor’s brand. The most famous example comes from the Mac vs. PC ads, in which Mac skewered the PC in a series of commercials that were watched and shared millions of times online. Then, there was the Audi vs. BMW billboard war. Audi started it with Your Move BMW, but few people at the agency thought that BMW would come back with a billboard right next to it saying Checkmate. And in Britain at the turn of the millennium, the British Airways London Eye was having all sorts of problems being raised. That’s when challenger brand Virgin Atlantic jumped on the chance, floating a balloon close by saying BA Can’t Get it Up. Classic Richard Branson.

3. Zig When Others Zag

One of the biggest issues facing the creative department of an advertising agency is convincing the client to do something that its competitors are not doing.

It goes back to the 50s and 60s, when clients would turn away interesting work saying “that doesn’t look like an ad for our product.” But this is the ideal way to grab the attention of the public. When other companies are going small, go big. When they’re being loud, be quiet. When they’re using comedy, use drama. A great example of this is Dove’s campaign for real beauty. At a time when all other beauty product companies were using female models that were “tens”, Dove decided to use real women in their ads. And, they showed the “behind the curtain” moments of how any woman can become “perfect” by using Photoshop. The videos went viral.

4. Hijack an Event or Holiday

It doesn’t have to be a big day, like Christmas or Halloween. If it’s an event that will get any kind of news coverage, you have an instant advantage.

During the U.S. Election of 2016, many brands jumped on the bandwagon, and caught the attention of the public. Labor Day is an ideal vehicle for many products and services to do something big, and different. And events like the Oscars, the World Cup, the Olympic Games, and even local events have some built-in newsworthiness that you can take advantage of. It’s important to tie to the context of the event, though, and if you do it badly, you will come across as foolish. If you’re doing something on President’s Day, you’d better have a natural connection to it in some way.

5. Break a World Record

The Guinness Book of World Records is known around the world. There are thousands of records archived, and new records are broken every day. It has become such a great way to capture the imagination of the public that Guinness has sections of its website devoted to corporations getting involved in new or existing records. They list the advantages of record break as boosting brand awareness, team building, good cause promotions, and anniversaries. Recently, the Porsche Cayenne broke the world record for the “Heaviest aircraft pulled by a production car;” a record that was previously held by the Nissan Patrol. Don’t worry if a record doesn’t even exist; simply create on that fits with your brand, even if it’s something silly like “number of cookies balanced on your nose.” Someone, somewhere, will pick it up.

6. Create a “Viral” Event and Release the Footage

The word viral has become painfully overused in marketing and advertising. Most of the time, it’s very hard to capture lightning in a bottle. People will either interact with your brand, or they won’t. However, there are ways to almost guarantee a video will go viral, and that’s by staging an event and filming it. Then, you release the footage on YouTube, Facebook, and other sites. Classic examples of this in recent times include TNT’s Push To Add Drama, the Chucky Comes to Life Poster, and the Telekinetic Coffee Shop. Every one of those stunts garnered over 50 million views on YouTube, and there were countless more shares on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. If you put in the work, it will pay off.

7. Go Big. Really Big.

If you do not want to be ignored, make something so big it’s impossible to ignore. That is not talking about the scale of the event, but building something that is physically huge and impressive. When Michael Jackson released his album HIStory, plus the accompanying tour, giant statues of Michael (over 30 feet tall) were placed in various locations around the world, including London, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, Milan, and Prague. Every single one of these statues made the news in countries around the world, garnering millions of dollars in earned media. When Maryland launched a limited edition Unbelievably Fudgey Object (UFO), the PR agency Cunning created an enormous cookie and crashed it into the middle of Trafalgar square. Game of Thrones created a massive dragon’s head and placed it on a beach in England. And then there was the 50ft dead parrot used to promote Monty Python. These projects take time, money, and a lot of planning, but they will grab the headlines.

8. Use the Power of Celebrity

There is another easy way to grab the attention of the public, but it’s definitely not the cheapest option. If you work with a big celebrity, you have a guaranteed audience of millions that will watch almost anything he or she does. Of course, you have to find the right stunt, the right product or service, and the right time to do it. In 2004, Tiger Woods was at the height of his success…and the world’s tallest free-standing hotel, in Dubai. Although he was paid a cool $1 million to play in the tournament, it was his tee shot from the top of the 1,053ft building that made the headlines. Attach your brand to Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Ashton Kutcher or Dwayne Johnson and you’ll get millions of views…but it will likely cost millions to get them.

9. Do Something Outrageous

If you have an idea that you think is just pushing the boundaries too much, don’t shelve it yet. It’s possible it could be the perfect solution for gaining awareness. In 2007, Lifelock CEO Todd Davis printed his real social security number on ads, billboards, and in TV commercials. He was so sure of his product, he literally put his own security on the line. As it turns out, several criminals took advantage of it, and took out some small loans. But the amount of media attention he got dwarfed those small amounts. In 2000, eBay paid the city of Halfway, Oregon to change its name to Half.com. And just look at all of the outrageous stunts that John Oliver of Last Week Tonight is pulling, including the establishment of a church, and buying student debt for pennies on the dollar.

10. Focus on a Landmark

Major landmarks around the world always have eyes on them. And that makes them perfect fodder for stunts that will quickly get attention. In 2002, Greenpeace activists scaled the statue of Christ the Redeemer to protest the results of the World Summit. In 1999, popular magazine FHM projected an image of a nude Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament. And in 2016, Nat Geo promoted Big Cat Week by placing a giant lion made from clock parts in the center of Trafalgar Square. Monuments and landmarks are protected though, so make sure you get all the appropriate permissions beforehand, or risk the consequences. You can’t just hijack the Statue of Liberty or the Tower of London without a lot of paperwork.