FIVE LESSONS FROM PR / MARKETING STUNTS
I’ve spent 25 years in PR and communications and over that time I’ve seen some amazing PR and marketing stunts by commercial brands and campaign groups that have really captured imaginations and headlines. And I’ve witnessed some absolute shockers that should never have seen the light of day. Here are five of my favourites – good and bad – and what we can learn from them.
1. Nike – Colin Kaepernick Just Do it campaign
In 2018, Nike named NFL athlete Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign. Within one month, the unveiling video had garnered more than 80 million views. And as of today – YouTube shows it’s received over 29 million views and overall the campaign created record levels of engagement with the brand.
Yes, this was – strictly speaking – an ad campaign. But there’s no such thing as a single channel campaign any more if you want to be effective and the lines between advertising, PR and marketing are blurred almost to irrelevance. And yes, I know Nike has some really difficult reputational issues to deal with. But THIS campaign was extraordinary and it did what all great campaigns should do: it ignited a conversation.
Be prepared to take a risk (and know your audience): This campaign almost didn’t happen. In 2016, Kaepernick had been the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racism and police brutality in America. When he left his team the 49ers – no other team would sign him and Nike almost dropped him. The Head of Communications persuaded Nike to stick with Kaepernick. And Nike’s advertising agency persuaded them to use him for this campaign. Yes – it was a risk. They risked angering the NFL, the President (Trump) and all of his supporters and others who opposed Kaepernick’s stance. But Nike calculated that the risk was worth it to reach the prized ‘young, urban market’. And they were right.
2. CALM – raising awareness of male suicide
Every two hours, a man takes his own life and yet the stigma around mens’ mental health means that not enough is being done to encourage and empower men to ask for help. So, in 2018, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), developed a stunt that placed 84 lifelike mannequins on the ledges of London’s ITV Southbank buildings to raise awareness of male suicide. According to CALM, 34% more people reached out for help in the immediate aftermath of the campaign. And the campaign – which also secured over 400k signatures to an online petition – provided a catalyst for the Government announcement of the first UK minister for suicide prevention alongside the first-ever Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in London.
Collaboration is key: A PR stunt is only as good as the outreach that supports it. This campaign was a collaboration between Adam & Eve DDB (ad agency), W Communications (PR agency); ITV; and CALM. There is no doubt that it was an arresting stunt and the image of 84 mannequins on a London rooftop is not one most people will easily forget. But, it was the partnership with ITV’s This Morning – who dedicated three days of programming to male suicide – that gave this campaign extraordinary reach.
3. Snapple – World’s Largest Ice Lolly
We have to go back to 2005 for one of my favourite PR stunts gone wrong. Snapple came up with the idea of going for the Guinness World Record for largest ‘popsicle’ (or ‘ice lolly’ if you’re British). Where was this huge iced confection to be unveiled? Downtown Manhattan. And when? At the start of the Summer. Can you spot the flaw in this plan?
The giant “Snappsicle” — which was 35,000 pounds and 25 feet tall – arrived in New York on a freezer truck and was then lowered by crane in Manhattan. It was a warm day. As it often is AT THE START OF SUMMER IN NEW YORK (sorry for the shouty caps but really!). So guess what? The Snappsicle began to melt. Snapple pink liquid covered the streets. Police and fire departments had to be called in to help manage the crowds and start the cleaning process, sending out an alert that stated: “A giant Popsicle being displayed by Snapple has melted in the heat and sun and spilled all over 17th Street. F.D. on scene attempting to wash down the roadway — sticky goo all over the area.” Priceless!
Apply some common sense: Need I say more? But seriously – when developing a stunt, think about it from all angles including what could go wrong. And be prepared to change your mind and your plans.
4. Adidas – Boston Marathon Email
In 2017, Adidas developed an email marketing campaign targeting customers who participated in the Boston Marathon. The campaign was designed to congratulate runners and capitalise on Adidas’ sponsorship of the race. Unfortunately, the subject line simply read “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” Clearly whoever drafted, edited and approved this text didn’t consider the fact that only four years earlier, the Boston Marathon bombing had claimed three lives and injured more than 250 people. Adidas immediately issued an apology but they had caused widespread offence.
Sense-checking is essential: Sometimes when you’ve spent hours fine-tuning your text, it can be hard to see the mistakes and the faults (I should know – I make loads!). Always get someone else to sense-check it. A colleague, a friend, your Mum. Doesn’t matter – just someone who a) wasn’t involved in drafting the text b) can proofread and c) has some common sense (see above).
5. ASOS – Tinder Model
Thea Chippendale uses the Tinder app. She has a range of lovely photos including one of her wearing a pink dress from ASOS. One of her ‘potential matches’ disliked her dress in the photo and went out of his way to let her know. Thea tweeted the messages she had received from ‘George’ in which he stated that her outfit was a ‘charity shop job’ – using the hastag #menaretrash. Her tweet went viral – receiving nearly 100,000 likes and 7,000 retweets. A sharp-eyed PR person at ASOS spotted this and promptly made Thea a model – in the dress – on its site; tweeting an image of her with a message ‘@theachippendale Swipe right to see who had the last laugh’. Not only did ASOS get lots of kudos on social media but they generated great press coverage too.
Be ready to react: Some of the best PR stunts aren’t planned – they are dreamed up in reaction to something else that’s captivated the public’s attention. From a social media meme that’s gone viral to the announcement of a Royal baby – be ready to react and hitch your campaign to a topical bandwagon.
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week I wrote a newsletter that caused more people to unsubscribe from my list than almost anything I have ever written before. I'm not concerned - clearly they are not my people - but I thought I'd share it here so you can tell me: would this cause YOU to unsubscribe?
"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels."
I remember the first time I heard that quote.
I was in my teens. I laughed.
Then as I began to think seriously about my career, my Mum explained to me that to be a successful career woman meant working twice as hard as a man to be considered half as good (and paid half as much).
I was in my early twenties. I thought she was exaggerating.
After I burnt out for the second time, I went to a conference and listened to a passionate and eloquent woman - who has subsequently become a great friend - explain something that should have been utterly obvious to me: that our entire cultural paradigm is based on structures set up by men and for men.
I was in my forties. And I cried.
Because it is exhausting having to don your Superwoman cape every day to ‘compete’ in the workplace.
As a single woman, I didn’t have to juggle work with family.
As a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual and mainly able-bodied woman, I wasn’t dealing with the raft of intersectional prejudices beyond your average, everyday sexism.
But I was still exhausted.
And it wasn’t just because the systems that we work within weren’t designed for women but for men who had stay-at-home wives doing all of the work in the home.
It’s because for me - as for so many women - every day was and is a balancing act.
Every day is a tightrope walk between safety and danger; between being listened to and dismissed; between familiarity and harassment; between authenticity and playing the game.
Every day is a fight to be seen, to be heard, to be respected, to be autonomous, to be considered, to be valued, to be safe.
In the workplace, in our social spaces, in our homes, in our politics, in our media.
This week my friend and client Harriet Waley-Cohen shared a post about this on LinkedIn. I’m going to share a section of her post here because she has put this so much more eloquently than I could:
"Sometimes it amazes me that there isn't a massive uprising.
Women are fed up of being objectified and judged on our looks, and only respected by how fu*&able we are deemed to be.
We are exhausted by feeling unsafe everywhere we go and watching our backs.
We are exasperated with not being paid the same, of our careers, choices and finances being marginalised because of caring expectations.
We are in despair about our allegations against powerful men being ignored because these men are too valuable to be held to account.
We are done with being told our tone of voice is the bloody problem, that we are too emotional.
We have had enough of not being able to trust the police or the legal system, and of people saying 'innocent until proven guilty' when the stats for prosecutions are laughably low and we all know most rapists never face any real consequences.
We are fed up of being told that it's not all men, because we never said it was, and it hurts to see so few men actively working towards making things better."
There has been an outpouring of grief, support and righteous anger in the comments on Harriet’s post. Of course there has. Because this is nearly every woman’s lived experience. And it is not OK.
I have written about these issues before in this newsletter. In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder and after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade. And there’s a part of me that didn’t want to write about this again. A part of me was concerned that you - my wonderful community - would grow bored of me ‘ranting on’ about this issue. A part of me that feared being judged or dismissed.
And that’s exhausting too, right?
The constant self-censorship. The constant voice in my head telling me that I can’t say this, shouldn’t write about that, mustn’t be too emotional, too strident, too ‘shouty’.
Well, in the nicest possible sense: f*&k that.
I am in my fifties now and as tired as some people may be of hearing me talk about these things, trust me I am WAY more tired of still having to talk about them. But until there is equity, it is up to every one of us to keep ‘banging on’.
And we need to do more than rant, we need to ACT.
Because here’s the thing, whatever your gender, you can either be an ally or you can be complicit in the problem. Please choose to be an ally. Here are three things you can do:
- Support people like Harriet when they share publicly about these issues. This kind of content often attracts trolls and the ‘not all men’ brigade - and it can be overwhelming to have to do all the rebuttal yourself. Another friend and client - the fabulous Stephanie Aitken, also did a post this week on a related topic and spent many hours having to deal with trolls in the comments. Help them.
- Call out misogyny, sexism, harassment, prejudice and bigotry when you see it - and when you feel safe to do so. I’m not advocating that you intervene when doing so would put you in real physical danger. But if a colleague makes an off-colour remark; if a family member behaves in a way that is inappropriate; if a friend displays ignorance, aggression or bias: name it. Don’t just smile and secretly roll your eyes. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t be afraid to be ‘awkward’. Have the conversation.
- Engage the next generation. Several of the commenters on Harriet’s post talked about children watching violent porn. They shared stories of how boys’ attitudes to girls are in some cases worse now than they were when I was a teen. The murder of Elianne Andam this week makes it clear just how important it is to speak to our children about these issues. Talk to the young people in your life. Find out about their experiences. Give them a safe space to explore these issues. And educate them about respect and equity. If we are going to break this cycle, this is VITAL work. Don’t shy away from it.
There is so much more that we could all be doing but this would be an amazing start!
OK. Rant over, for today.
I’m not promising I won’t come back to this again.
My most fervent wish is that there will come a day when it won’t be necessary.
I hope to see that day in my lifetime.
My biggest fear is that I will not.
I think that will do for now - I do hope it has been helpful!