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 ...
The Crash at Crush
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
The Art of Flagpole-Sitting
The 1920s had a lot of fads that look weird today, like flapper girls and Prohibition. And then there was pole-sitting.
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.
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.
"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:
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.
The Scopes Monkey Trial
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Dear moron, please knock it off."
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.
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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