6 Iconic Things You Won't Believe Began as Publicity Stunts

In an age when getting famous for the sake of being famous is the name of the game, and where it's hard to tell genuine news from fake "viral" publicity stunts, it's easy to long for the old days. You know, back when people still had some dignity, and great things were built and accomplished for some reason other than self-promotion.

We're not exactly sure when that was, because some of the most iconic places and rituals in the world were started purely to create "buzz."

#6. The Olympic Torch Relay Was Publicity for the Third Reich


The most iconic moment from any Olympic games is the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame. The torch is carried from Olympia, Greece, to the games' host city, and the journey across nations has become a symbol of the world uniting toward a single goal. Oh, also, it was originally instituted by the Nazis to gain a little exposure.

To be fair, it beats pop-up ads.

The Publicity Stunt That Started It:

The tradition of the Olympic flame itself -- minus the runner carrying the torch cross-country -- dates back to the first Olympics in ancient Greece, where a fire burned throughout the games. Then the 1936 Berlin Olympics added a new twist to the torch ceremony. Carl Diem, the event's organizer, wanted to link the modern Olympics to the ancient games. Hitler's good friend Joseph Goebbels, aka the minister of Nazi propaganda, saw this as an excellent opportunity to promote the Aryan race to the world.

Nothing makes the race look good like tight shorts and pasty white legs.

The Nazis believed that ancient Greece was the forerunner of the Aryan race. So naturally, having one of their Nazi supermen carrying the flame from Olympia to the European countries where Germany wanted to increase its influence made perfect sense. And Goebbels spared no expense in making sure that every second of the relay was broadcast through radio and dramatic photographs taken for the benefit of their future subjects.

"Boy, those Nazis sure do know how to stand in huge blocks underneath giant flags."

So as you watch the Olympic torch wind its way to London this summer, just remember that the worldwide event uniting every country for the sake of sport was originally designed to show the world the superiority of a few white guys.

#5. The Public Ten Commandments Monuments Were Created to Promote the Movie

You may remember a few years back there was a huge controversy over a stone Ten Commandments monument in an Alabama courthouse, including a lawsuit to get it taken down. But if you're anything like us and have spent a lot of your free time in courthouses, you've noticed that similar Ten Commandments monuments appear on and around public edifices all over the United States.

We can't help but notice that these say nothing about speeding, doing drugs or stealing cable.

They are intended as a reminder of the core principles on which our laws were built, and hell, they've probably been sitting there since the 1700s, right?

The Publicity Stunt That Started It:

In 1955, a movie was due for release. Maybe you've heard of it.

He-Man got kinda lame in his old age.

While Cecil B. DeMille was working on the movie, he learned that a judge from Minnesota had been working with a Christian fraternal organization to send framed copies of the Ten Commandments to schools and public buildings for display. Not in anticipation of a big epic movie coming out, but because he thought America needed reminding of God's laws before those filthy beatniks could corrupt the nation.

We've always preferred a slightly amended version of the Ten Commandments.

Eager for publicity, DeMille contacted the judge and suggested that they replace the framed certificates with bronze tablets, but the judge said no way. Moses' tablets were in granite, so bronze wouldn't do (apparently no one bothered pointing out that framed paper certificates were just fine for the judge before DeMille and Paramount got involved).

So, with DeMille's backing, around 150 granite tablets were made and distributed across the country, with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner dedicating a few of them in person.

Thorn in Paw
I, Yul Brynner, dedicate this monument. Now go see my movie!

Having Heston and Brynner on a faux religious tour was great publicity for the film, which grossed around $80 million. When the movie was out of theaters, the monuments stayed, and the group that helped the judge at the beginning of the story kept right on sending them out into the mid-'80s.

Of course, it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would say, "Hang on a second, what about the separation of church and state?" and the lawsuits ignited like a burning bush. In fact, the Ten Commandments monument that was the focus of the 2005 Supreme Court case Van Orden v. Perry was one of Cecil B. DeMille's very first attempts at viral marketing.

Heston's irresistibly doe-y eyes were another.

In other words, the Supreme Court handed down a decision as a result of a movie publicity stunt.

#4. The Hollywood Sign Was a Billboard for a Housing Development

It has to be one of the five most recognizable landmarks in the world -- the big white "Hollywood" sign that transformed one Southern California suburb into the magical place where dreams are made.


The symbolism behind the sign is pretty profound: If a dirty town in the desert could become iconic through the power of movies, then why can't you? So come live out your dreams, talentless teenager! We need waiters!

The Publicity Stunt That Started It:

The Hollywood sign was created as a gigantic billboard for an expensive housing development in 1923.

The Hollywood Sign

Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler built a really fancy subdivided housing development called Hollywoodland, and when the time came to advertise his new venture, he had to think long and hard for a way to catch everyone's eye. After considering print, radio and even those newfangled motion pictures, he settled instead on building a 50-foot colossal billboard on the hills behind his homes. Just so we're clear, the sign that's become a symbol of movie-stardom was actually created because movies sucked at generating publicity.

The original sign, which read "Hollywoodland," cost $21,000 to make, and it lit up at night to attract the artsy, sophisticated types that Chandler wanted to live in his mansions. For the most part, things worked out. Then the Great Depression came along and ruined everything for Chandler. People couldn't afford to live in his subdivision, and his Hollywoodland sign crumbled from lack of maintenance.

What's wrong? The Hullywod sign looks fine!

By the 1970s, the Hollywoodland sign was completely unrecognizable. The "H" had blown away, and the city of Los Angeles decided to drop the "LAND" from the sign. But the good news was that this problem, like most other problems, could be solved with porn! In 1978, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner held a fundraiser to save the sign. Celebrities such as Alice Cooper and Gene Autry participated in an auction that won them individual letters to restore. This whole procedure actually started the Hollywood revitalization movement of the 1980s that allowed the city to flourish into the sticky, grimy Hollywood you know and love today.

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