The 6 Most Wildly Irresponsible Publicity Stunts in History

Not everybody has the money for ads and billboards, which means they have to get creative when it comes time to promote their cause or business. And by creative, we mean insane and absurdly dangerous.

This was even more true back in the old days, when even those with money had limited options for advertising and the law was a lot more lax when it came to risking everyone's lives. That's how we wound up with ...

#6. The Crash at Crush

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In 1896, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway needed to attract more customers, especially in Texas. Railroad executive William Crush was put in charge of finding a solution to this little dilemma. After finding no place in Texas that non-Texans would want to visit, and tired of waiting for the Dallas Cowboys to be invented, he said to his bosses, "How about we create a temporary city and have two trains go full speed in a head-on collision for all to watch?!"


What else were you going to do in 1896?

Obviously they greenlighted the plan. A new town, named Crush, sprung up in Texas for the sole purpose of having a place for people to go to watch the crash happen. Tents were put up. A grandstand was built. And two trains were procured, painted and sent around Texas to advertise the crash.

Finally, on the day of the Crush crash, the railroad made the event free and gave reduced rates to everyone traveling by train. The "city" of Crush now had over 40,000 people gathered there, making it the second-largest city in Texas for a day.

Petticoats and Pistols
"Free Bird!"

Despite the safety measures taken, such as building a special track for the event and having the police hold the crowd back from the oncoming collision, things didn't go according to plan. Both trains were set on "full speed ahead" mode and were abandoned by the crew. The railroad was expecting just a crash; they were not counting on the boilers to explode. Yes, children, there is the potential for danger even in something as innocuous as a massive intentional train crash.

Petticoats and Pistols
"Nothing bad can come of this."

The trains collided at 45 miles per hour, with the force erupting the boilers. Debris flew everywhere, including into the crowd. Three people were killed, and many more injured, like that guy who took those photos who lost an eye from a flying bolt.


"People will still want to ride our trains, right?"

After the mayhem, William Crush was fired. But there was almost no negative publicity of the event. Crush, sensing an opportunity, made a plea to his old company that this could be turned around to be a piece about railroad safety, and he was rehired the next day.

Petticoats and Pistols
"Eh, we can't stay mad at you!"

The town was torn down after the day of the crash. The railroad gave casualties of the collision something every victim would want: free passes on the same railroad that almost killed them.

#5. The Art of Flagpole-Sitting

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The 1920s had a lot of fads that look weird today, like flapper girls and Prohibition. And then there was pole-sitting.

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Above: the "lolcat" of its day.

You're probably wondering what "pole-sitting" is slang for. We're going to ruin it by telling you that in fact it was just sitting on poles. People would climb a flagpole or other similar pole and sit on top for days on end. And the man who popularized it was Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly.

You Remember That
The top of that pole is lodged so deep he had difficulty swallowing.

Where'd he get the nickname? Why, he survived the Titanic, of course! Or so he claimed.

For 13 hours in 1924 in Los Angeles, Kelly sat on a pole to advertise a movie. But it grew from there. Using the ol' "sit on top of a flagpole and promote something" gag, by 1928 he was making over $100 a day, which is something like $1.7 trillion an hour in 2011 money if our math is right (and it's not). He even broke a pole-sitting world record in 1929 by sitting for 49 days on a flagpole in Atlantic City. But then, like all fads, pole-sitting was replaced by new fads such as zoot suits and crushing poverty. With the Depression raging, Kelly needed new publicity stunts. And fast.

Bad Fads
"How about standing on top of a flagpole?"

Instead of getting a real job, he started doing non-flagpole-related activities for publicity stunts. In 1934, for example, he attempted to jump off the George Washington Bridge in New York and was stopped by police at the last minute. But then in 1939, a doughnut company started National Doughnut Dunking Week and needed someone to do something to get people to notice. Their go-to guy? Shipwreck Kelly, who ended up doing this:

Hoff/News

That's Kelly eating 13 doughnuts upside-down on a wooden plank protruding from the top of a 54-story building in the middle of Manhattan. And if that wasn't enough, he did it on October 13, which fell on a Friday that year. One wrong shift in weight and doughnuts would never be seen in the same way again. In case you were wondering, he didn't fall, but his career as an odd-job stuntman never picked back up again.

#4. The Scopes Monkey Trial

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You have hopefully heard of the 1925 Scopes monkey trial (if not, don't get your hopes up that they actually put a monkey on trial -- we would have made the whole article about that if they did). For many of you, the story was framed as a landmark case in the teaching of evolution in public schools. In reality, it was all an orchestrated publicity stunt. And kind of a silly one at that.

Smithsonian
"Let's all sit around in the heat and listen to old people argue!"

Which is to say it all began not as a court case, but as a ploy for the city of Dayton, Tenn., to bring in tourists and money.

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"Visit lovely Dayton, home of ... eh, never mind."

After the Butler Act was passed, making it illegal to teach evolution, the ACLU put ads in every newspaper in Tennessee in the hopes that some city would take up a legal challenge. After Dayton business leaders read it, they decided that a trial would not only bring thousands of people to their small town, but also that it should be broadcast worldwide.


"It's either this or polio to keep me entertained."

Now they just needed somebody to get arrested. The head of the group asked his friend John Scopes, a football coach and substitute biology teacher, to go into class and start teaching up some evolution. Scopes did so, turning himself in and even telling his students to testify against him.


Back then, you could dress like this and no one would bat an eye.

After the ACLU joined up, the trial of John Scopes quickly grew out of control. The people arguing the case were selected almost entirely based on how famous they were. In defense of Scopes would be famed attorney Clarence Darrow (who had made headlines as the defense in the Leopold and Loeb murder trial -- the O.J. Simpson trial of its day), and they tried to get H.G. Wells, the famed British author, to join the team.

The prosecution, led by a Christian fundamentalist organization, was not to be outdone, and got the three-time former Democratic nominee for president William Jennings Bryan to be their lawyer. (This would be like having evolution proponent Richard Dawkins fight a legal case against Al Gore.) For the city of Dayton, the stunt was working beautifully.


Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were so old they
probably could have testified about evolution from firsthand experience.

In the end, Dayton's push for a huge media circus and worldwide attention on their small town worked. Complete with colorful reporting (one journalist dubbed the whole affair "the monkey trial"), the resulting trial made money for many local businesses, and still brings in people today to the courthouse and museum dedicated to the only thing mildly interesting ever to happen in Dayton. In 1960, a movie was even made about the case.


Featuring the most adorable nerd-monkey ever caught on film.

The trial didn't resolve shit, by the way. After eight days, Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay $100, with teaching evolution in Tennessee continuing to be illegal until 1967. But hey, it worked out well for Dayton.

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