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When it comes to PR stunts, they have their pros and cons. On the one hand, a well-executed, creative PR stunt can generate hundreds of pieces of coverage, thousands of engagements, millions of views, and drive mass traffic and product sales. It can also lead to awards, accolades and bragging rights for PR pros and agencies alike — which they’ll dine out on for the rest of their careers.

On the flip side, get it wrong and you can easily waste thousands on an idea no one is interested in or, worst case, detrimentally impacts your brand’s image.

To have a real impact, the best stunts come down to the idea, the execution, timing, boldness, and a little bit of magic.

Some of my best career memories come from stunts, from directing a mockumentary for a leading lingerie brand to shooting a “Doggie Dinner” fine dining experience for ten dogs. Each was exhausting, nerve-shattering, stressful and, above all, unbelievably fun. And yes, I still dine out of them to this day.

There are already multiple lists online featuring the best PR stunts. For our list, however, we decided to focus on stunts that were not only iconic, but created real mainstream news, buzz, engagement and, in some cases, revolutions.

  1. Richard Branson – BA Can’t Get It Up

Media mogul Sir Richard Branson isn’t one to shy away from a bold PR stunt, and my personal favourite was his cheeky blimp in 1999 that got London talking.

In the ’90s, there was a major rivalry between Virgin Airways and British Airways. After years of back-and-forth duelling, Branson came across an unmissable opportunity to deliver a fatal blow — and grabbed it with both hands.

In 1999, London’s skyline was about to welcome its newest iconic addition: the London Eye, sponsored by British Airways. But, when Branson woke up one morning to a phone call informing him of construction difficulties that put a halt on BA erecting the wheel, his answer was simple: “Send the blimp!”

Mere hours later, there was an unexpected new addition to the London skyline in the form of a blimp emblazoned with the words ‘BA Can’t Get It Up’. As well as hilariously showing up BA, the stunt cemented Branson’s reputation as a marketing genius, and Virgin Airways as a major player in the aviation industry. 

  1. Boston Tea Party

From the ‘90s, all the way back to the 17th Century. We may think of PR as a modern invention, but publicity stunts can be traced back far throughout history — even as far back as before the birth of the United States of America.

The Boston Tea Party, a political protest against the British Parliament’s Tea Act, is an iconic moment in American history and a perfect example of how bold public action can spark a revolution (literally).

By dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbour, these revolutionaries made their stance on the British Parliament’s ‘taxation without representation’ abundantly clear, while guaranteeing a place in the history books to document their cause. What could be a better outcome for a PR stunt than that?

  1. T-Mobile – Liverpool Street Flash Mob

These days, we’re well-acquainted with the concept of a flash mob, meaning it takes something extraordinary to cut through the noise. But, rewind to 2009, and the trend was still in its infancy.

Enter T-Mobile with their group of synchronised, seemingly spontaneous dancers in the middle of London’s Liverpool Street Station. Filmed for an advert as part of their ‘Life is for sharing’ campaign, this simple yet eye-catching stunt scooped the prize for TV ad of the year at the British Television Advertising Awards, generated £1.2 million worth of free PR coverage, and increased sales by 52%.

Following up the stunt with similar flash mobs at Trafalgar Square and Heathrow Airport, this campaign worked so well for T-Mobile because it was entertaining while also perfectly encapsulating its message about the joy of sharing special moments with others.

  1. Redbull Stratos

Red Bull — the market-dominating energy drink that ‘gives you wings’ — is known for dialling up its marketing to the max, with numerous extreme sports sponsorships under its belt. In 2012, the brand took things even further by executing a stunt that was truly out of this world.

In its record-breaking Stratosproject, Red Bull flew Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner into the stratosphere where he performed an incredible 24-mile-long free fall back down to Earth, becoming the first human being to break the sound barrier without any engine power.

The event made a huge impact on social media, with millions of engagements across Red Bull’s various channels and over 8 million viewers live-streaming the one-of-a-kind spectacle.

Red Bull Stratos took the brand’s reputation for extreme sports and stunts to unbelievable new heights, generating coverage from 40 TV network stations and 130 digital outlets.   

  1. Ice Bucket Challenge

In the summer of 2014, you couldn’t open up Facebook without being met with a video of someone having a freezing cold bucket of water tipped over their head.

This refreshing stunt, dubbed the Ice Bucket Challenge, was founded to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as motor neuron disease) and encourage people to donate to research.

By getting participants to nominate and tag their friends, this challenge quickly went viral across several social media platforms, shining an important spotlight on this lesser-known disease.

As well as raising awareness and funds for ALS research, the Ice Bucket Challenge was an important reminder of the power of publicity to do good and drive change in the world.   

Three Thinking Hat Stunts We Love – The Happy Dog Cookbook is a leading pet food brand and fast-growth award-winning e-commerce startup. Our brief was to develop a creative idea that would generate widespread coverage and enhance their reputation as the go-to site for tailor-made healthy and nutritious dog food.

We came up with the idea of launching the first “gourmet recipe cookbook aimed at dogs” (okay, their owners). We launched the book in partnership with Dr Sean McCormak and celebrity nutritionist Annabel Carmel, aiming to produce a legacy piece of content that would be a valuable asset for years to come.

The result was The Happy Dog Cookbook. Not only was the book itself (thanks to Tails’s insights) an incredible asset, but the story was picked up far and wide with features in The Sun, Metro, Hello, OK, and Women and Home, to name a few. The book also generated tens of thousands of YouTube views, reviews and engagement online.

One Water – Walk For Water

The UK’s leading ethical drinks brand, One Water, was founded to transform lives globally, channelling its profits into funding sustainable water projects in disadvantaged regions.

As part of our collaboration back in 2016, we championed their Walk for Water initiative, where the London Scottish Rugby Club embarked on an inspiring journey carrying 25-litre containers of water along the Thames, mirroring the daily trek millions of women and children globally have to make to access water.

We focused on crafting compelling visuals to raise awareness of the 600 million people in the world’s poorest communities living without proper access to water. Through strategic image curation and broad media coverage, we worked to raise funds for One Water and build awareness of their cause, generating over 30 pieces of media coverage in four months.

UN Women – Turning the Tate Modern Magenta

UN Women, formally known as the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, is a pivotal global organisation founded in 2010 to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment. The organisation works tirelessly to eradicate discrimination and violence against women, promote women in leadership, and advance economic opportunities for women worldwide.

HeForShe is a solidarity campaign to promote gender equality, founded by UN Women. To help raise awareness of its goal to achieve equality by encouraging all genders to drive change and stand against negative stereotypes and behaviours, we supported HeForShe during London Arts Week in 2018.

As part of this event, UN Women turned the iconic Tate Modern magenta, resulting in powerful images we could share with the media. We secured coverage across key commuter press including the Metro, and the campaign was featured on Sky News and Channel Five News.

Creator: Stephen Chung/LNP | Credit: Stephen Chung/LNP
Copyright: ©2018 Under licence to London News Pictures Ltd

Once you’ve planned an eye-catching PR stunt, read our tips for creating an engaging content strategy to keep all eyes on your brand.