How to Master the Art of the Publicity Stunt

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The art of publicity stunts dates back to 1929 when Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, announced to the media that a group of women’s rights suffragettes would march in a Manhattan parade and light their “Torches of Freedom.” Once in front of the cameras the models lit up Lucky Strike cigarettes on cue, as Edward was employed by the American Tobacco Company.

Publicity StuntIn the last eighty years, the concept of the publicity stunt has been elevated to a high art as a wide variety of companies, from corporations to non-profits, have discovered that a well-executed stunt can garner massive media attention that money can’t buy.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has long been a publicity stunt trendsetter. The organization has had Playboy Playmates serve veggie dogs to Congressmen on Capitol Hill wearing nothing but lettuce bikinis; circulated bloody mutilated animal toys to journalists; wanted to rename fish as “sea kittens” to keep people from eating them; and had several beautiful actresses and supermodels pose nude to protest wearing furs.

However, their finest hour was when they produced a 30 second commercial entitled Kentucky Fried Cruelty and stated they were ready to spend millions of dollars to place it on the SuperBowl broadcast. Fox refused to air it (as PETA had expected) so the commercial was seen by millions of people online … for free!

There are many other inspiring publicity stunts which show the power of how unabashed creativity and imagination can galvanize the media:

  • paid the city of Halfway, Oregon $100,000 to change its name to, Oregon for one year. The publicity that followed led eBay to buy the company for $300 million barely five months later.
  • In 1993 recording artist Prince announced that he had changed his name to a symbol that defies pronounciation. The media attention revived his flagging career virtually overnight.
  • The Blair Witch Project’s producers aired pre-release clips and circulated tapes to universities as “real video” for their shoestring budget horror movie. It went on to take in almost $200 million at the box office.
  • Gaming website purchased a grilled cheese sandwich which seemed to have the Virgin Mary’s image toasted into the bread for $28,000. The sandwich was taken on a world tour and generated countless millions of dollars of free publicity for the site.
  • When British Airways’ Millennium Ferris Wheel was being erected it got stuck laying horizontally across the shore of the Thames River in London. Arch-rival Virgin Airlines flew a blimp over the site bearing the message “BA Can’t Get It Up.”

Of course, some publicity stunts go bad, a lesson that Richard Heene, the father of The Balloon Boy, has learned as he is now facing a jail sentence!

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This article, written by Hal Licino, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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The statement that the art of the publicity stunt dates back to 1929 is idiotic. Publicity stunts were done thousands of times long before that. For example, much of P.T. Barnum’s celebrated career owed its success to publicity stunts. As another example, the famous Western painter Bierstadt, to bring viewers to his New York studio, organized an Indian encampment on the sidewalk in front, complete with teepee and campfire.


I’m disappointed. Based on the title, I thought that the article would give useful tips on how to stage a successful publicity stunt for one’s brand. This article, however, simply lists a few stunts. Perhaps including a few publicity stunts that ‘went bad’ might, at least, allow the reader to decode for themselves what to do and what not to do.


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