The 6 Most Wildly Irresponsible Publicity Stunts in History

#3. Getting Women to Smoke for Freedom

When it comes to crass advertising methods, you can't leave the tobacco industry out of the conversation for long.

Their current ad campaigns are somewhat less than convincing.

Up until a certain point, smoking was generally seen as a man's habit. While smoking for men was seen as masculine and cool, women who smoked cigarettes were seen as immoral -- it was acceptable only for prostitutes and women in other lowly (mostly female) careers. In fact, women were even jailed for smoking in front of children and in public in the early 1900s.

But after World War I, after women entered and un-entered the workforce, the feminist movement kind of kicked off. Cigarette companies decided the time was right to cash in on a vastly untapped market.

Jane and Dick
It's not like they had ever tried the ploy before ...

Cigarette companies started advertising straight toward women, and lectures sponsored by cigarette companies taught women the art of smoking. But they still were struggling to get women to smoke. That is, until they got marketing genius Edward Bernays on board. Bernays devised a series of publicity stunts to get women to see smoking not as a habit, but as a call of their newfound freedom.

One such stunt was the Easter Parade in New York in 1929. By having a group of women smoke Lucky Strikes in front of the crowd in a stunt dubbed Torches of Freedom, Bernays was trying to convince women that smoking in public was A-OK.

The Form of Money
There is liberty in lung cancer.

The stunt worked on two levels. First, it got women to feel more empowered when they smoked -- they were breaking a sexual taboo and partaking of a habit the selfish men were keeping to themselves! So those who smoked didn't have to hide it. And it got more women to start the habit. In 1923, only 5 percent of cigarettes bought were by women. By 1935, it was over 18 percent. In the end, Bernays' stunt got more women to light up. For equality.

Nicotine isn't a chauvinist.

#2. Using Dangerous Live Animals to Promote Films


Back in the early 1900s, when silent films were the norm and "talking pictures" were an absurd idea that people believed would never take off, movie promotion was still in its early years. This was before there was such a thing as movie trailers and giant billboards stuck to the sides of buildings and buses. Clearly, grossly irresponsible publicity stunts were the only way.

"That's right, Mr. Chaplin. We'll set a dozen alligators loose in the municipal
pool and then everyone will want to see your new talkie."

One promoter who jumped right on this trend and who didn't really care about things such as "human safety" and "mass death" was Harry Reichenbach. While he did do some generally safe yet obnoxious stunts such as throwing pennies behind actors to get people to follow them around ("Look! They're being mobbed by fans!"), he also cooked up some stunts that can be best described as borderline insane. In 1918, for instance, the movie Tarzan of the Apes was on its way. And what better way to promote it than to let lions and gorillas loose in New York City hotels?

Harry Reichenbach: Super Genius.

While there is no record of what happened after he let them loose (we're guessing the animals killed and ate all the witnesses), he experienced the same kind of "inspiration" for his next promotion, the Tarzan sequel. To promote the film, he had a man order 15 pounds of raw meat at a hotel, and when the waiter appeared with it, he immediately threw it through an open door. In that room? A live lion.

Nothing motivates consumption like the fear of being mauled.

To promote another film, he had an actress fake a suicide before the premiere. In another, he staged a fake kidnapping on an actress and then staged a fake raid on the kidnappers in Mexico. This particular stunt resulted in a letter from Woodrow Wilson's Administration begging Reichenbach to stop.

Princeton Library
"Dear moron, please knock it off."

#1. Hanging an Elephant


WARNING: This story is horrible.

We apologize. Enjoy this puppy in a hat.

In 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows was struggling to compete against larger circuses, including Barnum & Bailey, and needed something to put them above the rest. While the other circuses had events everyone loved, such as the guy who gets launched out of the cannon and the freak show, Sparks could only compete with some painted dogs, a few terrifying clowns and a few other exhibits that kids yawned at. Oh, and elephants. Elephants are pretty important in this.


Out of all the elephants Sparks had, Mary was the biggest draw. They claimed she was the biggest elephant on Earth, and was worth over $20,000. On September 11, the circus was in Virginia, and Sparks decided to hire a new elephant trainer. After reviewing the only candidate who showed up, they hired Red Eldridge, a hobo whose last job was as a janitor. After a successful day of training, the circus moved on into Kingsport, Tenn. There, they set up for a circus. But there was one problem: Eldridge was annoyed at Mary and hooked her ear to get her to move. Mary killed the new "trainer" by throwing him against a drink stand and crushing his head, thus proving hooks are no match for a five-ton, slightly pissed off elephant.


That, of course, was not the publicity stunt. That was real.

As she had killed someone, the elephant was actually put on trial (that also was real -- remember, this is 1916 Tennessee). After being sentenced to death by what we imagine to be the most amusing jury deliberation ever, she was shot. Again. And again. After a dozen or so bullets, she didn't even appear to be hurt. So the town devised some new ways, but deemed electrocution and crushing her between two railroad cars to be too cruel (as compare to, say, repeatedly shooting her in the face).

Then they found an "uncruel" way: hanging her with a giant crane.

Above: A humane, dignified way to die.

Here's where the publicity stunt comes in.

Sparks was upset at losing his $20,000 elephant but decided to make the best of the situation by promoting the hanging and turning it into a one-time publicity stunt for the faltering circus. On her day of execution, over 2,500 people showed up in Erwin, Tenn. and watched an elephant get hanged. More than once. The chain broke a few times, causing the elephant -- still alive, mind you -- to fall and break her hip and toes before they found a chain to hold her weight. Hey, what a way to say the circus is in town!

Sweet dreams, kids!

The stunt worked, as right after the hanging, people went directly into the circus. Today, the city of Erwin is so ashamed of the stunt that they plaster the hanging scene on everything from T-shirts to murals on town buildings.

Blue Ridge County
You stay classy, Erwin, Tenn.

For more ridiculous corporate stunts, check out 5 Corporate Promotions That Ended in (Predictable) Disaster and 9 Corporate Attempts At "Edgy" That Failed (Hilariously).

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