Wow! Sacha Baron Cohen totally made Eminem look like a fool on the MTV Movie Awards by landing with his ass in his face! Daaaaamn!!
Ah, the art of the staged publicity stunt. Even after it came out that the whole thing was planned with Eminem's cooperation, you could still find comment threads full of people defending it as real.
And as publicity stunts go, that was minor league stuff. Especially when compared to...
#6. Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ "Controversy"
Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, was a Bible movie with no stars and not a word of English directed by a guy who was on the verge of wearing a special helmet that would keep the Jews from reading his thoughts. Needless to say, it was a tough sell.
But through a careful campaign that involved screening the film to Christian and conservative audiences in advance, Passion was hugely successful, grossing $370 million in the U.S. Then a month after it opened in February of 2004, it was set to open internationally, where they wouldn't have the same network of evangelical churches telling members it was their godly duty to buy a ticket.
So how do you build buzz in that situation? Well, nothing sells like controversy...
The Publicity Stunt:
Around the first of March, stories came out that no distributors in France would carry the film because it was too controversial. According to these reports, French film distributors were concerned that a Mel Gibson movie, that had already grossed enough to build a yacht-shitting Death Star, was too much for the sensitive tastes of the French public.
Some major French newspapers devoted two full pages to the controversy surrounding the movie. And as always happens with censorship, it only served to make people want to see it more. Once a French distributor purchased the rights to the film, they called a press conference to celebrate that they alone were the brave souls who would bring this banned work to light.
Why it Was Bullshit:
It turns out the "this film is TOO HOT for France!!" rumors were invented by Icon, Mel Gibson's production company. In reality, the French were more than happy to be bored while watching Jesus get whipped for six hours.
The head of the company that wound up distributing it said, "We have been tracking this film since its inception and were hoping to be in business with Mel..."
Still, this controversy and the free publicity helped the film gross another $240 million internationally. We're not sure what Mel's master plan was behind his breakdown and drunk driving arrest afterward, but we're sure he had one.
#5. Paris Hilton's Sex Tape
Quick: What was the first time you ever heard the name "Paris Hilton"?
Unless you were into tabloids and/or the wealthy New York party scene in the early 2000s, then odds are it was the whole sex tape "controversy." In 2004, the people who knew Paris Hilton broke down like this:
Before that she was a local New York socialite, far from a national star. She did turn up in the odd magazine (often with a famous boyfriend) and so Fox cast Paris in a reality show called The Simple Life.
This could be her breakthrough, she thought, the chance at worldwide fame she thought she so badly deserved. But why the hell would anybody care about yet another Fox reality show, particularly one starring two mildly retarded women middle America had never heard of?
The Publicity Stunt:
One week before the show was to debut, a publicity bombshell dropped. A video of Paris fucking a guy.
It's green because of the night vision. Her eyes really do look like that, though. No camera tricks there.
The famous home video of Paris and Rick Soloman "leaked" onto the Internet and within days the entire world went from barely knowing who Paris Hilton was to obsessively talking about her fornicating skills and camera work.
And since fame can create its own momentum, that's all it took. All of the news outlets in New York, who were more than familiar with Paris, went apeshit over the video. "Tonight there is a firestorm of controversy as clips emerged of Paris Hilton in a sex video! Wow!"
America heard this, and across the country the same conversation took place over and over:
"Wow! Paris Hilton! Naked, and in a sex video! Holy shit!"
"Wow! Wait, who's Paris Hilton?"
"I just told you! She's that lady in the sex video!"
Why it Was Bullshit:
Follow the timeline here. First, rumors came out in the tabloids that the video existed. Paris took to the airwaves and declared that there was no such tape, anywhere. But how does that reaction make sense, when she knew the tape was out there (it was not a hidden camera, and in fact Paris is actually doing the filming in some scenes). Why acknowledge the rumors at all?
Then, sure enough, clips emerge onto the Internet (it turned out it was Soloman, the dude in the video, who released it). Paris's response was to file lawsuits, which:
1) Verified authenticity
2) Drew more attention to the video and to her and kept the story in the headlines.
Then the Hilton family hilariously told the press that no one should watch the video, because Paris was "under age" at the time. Yeah, that'll scare the Internet off. "Please, we beg you, our daughter was merely a nubile, young, wild teen at the time she performed her extensive fellatio on this video that you can download for free, right now, but shouldn't."
A skinny teenager? And she's naked? No thank you."
Then Paris went on Saturday Night Live and did a sketch, parodying the whole thing.
So was Paris in on the initial "leak" of the video, or was it a happy accident that she parlayed it into tens of millions of dollars of free publicity? There's no official legal answer, since the lawsuits were settled out of court.
But if Paris was really an innocent victim, would she have demanded that the settlement include a cut of the profits from sales of the DVD? Making it even harder to buy that there was anything accidental about her very public run-in with Rick Salomon's boner, is the fact what most people tend to learn from accidents, rather than repeating them enthusiastically over and over again.
Now go search for "Paris Hilton + bathtub" or "Paris Hilton + third sex tape" or "Paris Hilton + donkey" and you'll find out exactly what she learned from her first sex scandal.
#4. Geraldo Rivera and Al Capone's Vault
Geraldo Rivera was always a lunatic. This is just a scientific fact. The thing that set Geraldo apart from most lunatics (besides the glorious mustache) is that he wanted to be famous for being a lunatic.
In 1986, Geraldo had just been fired from ABC after publicly criticizing them for not running his story about the JFK/Marilyn Monroe affair. But Geraldo noticed something about this firing: it generated more publicity for him, and his mustache, than the story itself ever would have.
Geraldo liked this publicity and developed a new career motto: "Fuck being a journalist, from now on, the story is me, baby."
Mustache mustache mustache.
The Publicity Stunt:
Shortly after the firing, an opportunity presented itself. A vault was found in the basement of the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, which was scheduled for demolition. Al Capone had run his business out of this hotel from 1928-1931, so it was assumed that the vault belonged to Capone.
If the vault were to contain money, bodies or other things that gangsters love to leave lying around, then this could make for a pretty decent news story. Or, you know, a lavish two-hour live TV special covering the entrance to the vault.
When it aired, viewers were treated to an hour and 50 minutes of backstory, expert opinions, technical details and this:
That is Geraldo firing a Tommy Gun into a wall. This is a vital part of the archeological process. Trust Geraldo on this.
We can laugh all we want, but the broadcast drew 30 million viewers. To put it in perspective, the series finale of the Sopranos brought in 11 million viewers, and the ER finale brought in 16 million. The tantalizing prospect of a really, really gruesome discovery on live TV was too much to resist. Nobody had seen the contents ahead of time, no censors were between us and whatever horrors lay behind those walls. It could be a wall of the mummified dicks of Capone's enemies for all we knew.
Fuck the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and their 23 million viewers. We want to see a mustache shoot a gun.
Oh, and by the way, once the special reached its climax and Geraldo finally opened the vault... it was empty. The broadcast ended and all the viewers were left to contemplate that they were two hours closer to death.
Even though the outcome was a failure the broadcast was a huge success for Geraldo. He became a coveted commodity in the entertainment business, started his own show, and became a ratings machine.
Why it Was Bullshit:
To quote Geraldo's autobiography: "My career was not over, I knew, but had just begun. And all because of a silly, high-concept stunt that failed to deliver on its titillating promise."
Geraldo figured out that the vault didn't matter. It was the hype and the theatrics that got the viewers. If the vault was the big deal he would have opened it off the air and if there was cool shit in there he would have done a piece about it. It wasn't about that. It was about the spectacle.
We're assuming Geraldo's only regret was that he didn't secretly tunnel into the vault ahead of time and plant some shit in there. Some aliens or something.