Publicity stunts are planned events created to capture public awareness and generate free media coverage. While PR stunts are notoriously high risk, the reward for potentially landing thousands—even millions—worth of free press makes the gamble worth it. To help you create an effective PR stunt that is likely to increase positive brand awareness, we’ve assembled the best examples of the 21st century for your inspiration.
Here are 21 of the craziest publicity stunts that actually worked:
1. Fast Food Aid Gives Fast Food Junkies Proper Nutrients
In the wake of a fast food crisis in an increasingly malnourished community, Dohtonbori, a health-conscious restaurant in Tokyo, launched Fast Food Aid. It’s a pop-up that offers the public the nutrients they need, based on the fast-food they have consumed—all for free. So all you need to do is bring your fast food receipt and get the opportunity to give your body what it didn’t get from your meal.
Why it worked: As strange as the concept may sound, Fast Food Aid proved to be an effective way to help educate the public about nutrition and health. In return, it indirectly helps to drive more patrons to its restaurant.
2. RedBull’s New Moon Event
RedBull is known for its outlandish antics and events, but on March 20, 2018, it hosted the most outlandish New Moon Party, where people in wingsuits jumped out of helicopters above the tallest building in Los Angeles. This wasn’t all that crazy by RedBull standards. However, the event caused a stir because the jumpers—fitted with a sparkler mechanism—dropped at sunset, leading those on the ground to believe comets or UFOs were descending on the city.
Why it worked: RedBull has always been known as the “extreme child” of caffeinated beverage companies, but even brand devotees didn’t see this coming. Fire-branded wingmen hopping out of helicopters at sunset above Los Angeles’ tallest building took the brand’s extremism to a whole new level. It not only captured media headlines, but cemented its image as dangerously exciting.
3. Visible Mobile Goes Mobile With Massages
At first glance, Visible Mobile’s advertisement looked like just about any other mobile phone ad you might find strewn across a city. And yet, upon further inspection, where most other providers offer unlimited messages with their services, this ad boasted unlimited massages. This could easily have been explained as a typo, but instead Visible summoned the assistance of masseuses and offered free massages to passersby.
Why it worked: It owned up to its mistake and began offering a pop-up massage stand, allowing the public to enjoy the company’s grammatical error. But, more importantly, it helped to create a warm fuzzy feeling toward the brand—something that mobile service providers aren’t known for and rarely manage.
4. Virgin Galactic Plans to Offer Flights to Space
While the air travel industry tends to struggle to stand out and build a strong brand, Virgin excels—so much so that it’s going as far as space. As of May 2021, it is in the process of entering into commercial service for flights to space.
News of the program and the idea that the public could go to space have landed a great deal of press. In fact, excitement grew further as it became public news that several celebrities had already signed up to go to space.
Why it worked: Though this public relations stunt isn’t necessarily directly benefiting Virgin Airline’s bottom line, it does help increase brand awareness while developing its brand image as the airline that can take you beyond your wildest dreams.
5. Tinder’s Dozens of Dopes Date
In the summer of 2018, Tinder created a PR stunt in New York City’s Union Square, where one woman invited dozens of men on the same date. The men were not aware that the date would involve many others, so they were surprised when they arrived to see a group of men and their date standing on a stage.
Why it worked: The stunt went viral on social media, giving Tinder a lot of free press. It may be a laughable and low-cost stunt, but it served as a conversation piece. It’s debatable if the stunt was in line with the dating app’s brand image, but some argue that it was a display of female empowerment. After all, the app has historically been known as a male-driven hookup platform.
6. KFC Ad Visible From Space
In 2016, the fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) had the cosmic idea to create the first advertisement that could be seen from space. While most would never see the ad in-person—never mind from a plane—it did create a buzz after it was put on the map by Google Maps and its corresponding Google Sightseeing Blog.
Why it worked: This outrageous marketing stunt got press coverage from a number of outlets, reaffirming KFC as an oversized fixture in the fast-food world. Longstanding businesses like KFC often suffer from consumer fatigue and need to work hard to stay top of mind. KFC managed to do so with this creative ad stunt—showing us that its fried chicken is tops wherever in the galaxy you are.
7. WestJet Christmas Miracle
WestJet took a feel-good approach to a publicity stunt in 2013. It prompted children to share their Christmas wish lists with a virtual Santa Claus on screens in both the Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario airports. Behind the scenes, WestJet’s staff took notes, and when the wish-sharing passengers landed at their destination, they were surprised with their dream gifts.
Why it worked: The heart-felt video from the filmed event went viral, landing WestJet more than major press. It also helped spread Christmas cheer and inspired some warm and fuzzy feelings toward the airline. Of course, this is no easy feat for an industry that is generally viewed in the minds of consumers as broken and dated. Still, WestJet successfully pulled it off, landing tons of free press.
8. Daytona 500 Comes to New York City
Days before the Daytona 500, a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series vehicle showed up in one of the busiest parts of New York City. It then remained parked there for three days, collecting tickets and eventually a boot (which had to be custom made to fit the race car’s tire).
Why it worked: Despite the bustle that surrounds busy NYC streets, the race car was attention-grabbing. It was out of place, and with the ever-growing number of tickets, the car was almost comical—looking as if the race car had speeding tickets. It effectively piqued the interest of locals and served to promote the upcoming Daytona 500 event—all for a pretty cost-effective price compared to other forms of advertising in downtown NYC.
9. Uber’s Helicopter Rides
Uber took its ridesharing services to new heights when it started offering promotional helicopter rides to Uber users. It started the service in 2012 by chartering Uber helicopter rides from New York City to the Hamptons, giving upscale weekenders a way to get to the beach in style. The concept, while not long-lived, was surprising, though not illogical for a transportation company.
Why it worked: This stunt worked because it demonstrated that Uber is forward-thinking in terms of transportation services. It’s a good example of how a business can create a positive PR stunt connected to its normal product offerings, and unique and exciting enough to attract media attention.
10. Taco Bell ‘Buys’ the Liberty Bell
Back in 1996, Taco Bell played a joke on the nation when it submitted press releases to major news outlets—from The New York Times to USA Today—stating that it was purchasing the Liberty Bell. The response was a countrywide outrage at the atrocious idea of a Mexican-themed fast food restaurant buying America’s foremost symbol of freedom.
Why it worked: This legendary PR stunt from Taco Bell cost the fast-food giant upward of $300,000. That may sound like a lot, but Taco Bell got the last laugh. Priceconomics reported that they got around $25 million in free publicity from the stunt. It wasn’t a stunt that helped with the branding or even its image in the public eye, but it successfully got the taco giant plastered in the news.
11. GoldenPalace.com Buys a 10-Year-Old Sandwich for $28,000
In 2004, the online casino Golden Palace Casino cashed in on a crazy marketing idea when they decided to purchase a piece of 10-year-old “Virgin Mary” toast for $28,000. For many businesses, this would have looked like bizarre, frivolous spending. But Golden Palace had a plan—taking the toast on a world tour where they could talk up their casino while raising money for charity.
Why it worked: Golden Palace managed to pull off the ridiculous stunt and capture a ton of press because it was such an outlandish concept. The almost $30,000 toast conjured images of lottery-winning spending sprees, which is exactly what Golden Palace wanted. To boot, the bizarreness was a hit with local and international media, like the BBC.
12. Jaguar’s Fastest Barrel Roll in a Car
When luxury automaker Jaguar released its first midsize SUV, it decided to make a media splash by teaming up with the Guinness World Records. To capture the masses’ attention and show that Jaguar was capable of more than high-end sedans, it came up with a scheme to break a world record. It completed the fastest barrel roll in a vehicle using its very own SUV.
Why it worked: Breaking a world record is usually a good way of getting press, but Jaguar used the stunt to show people how rugged its new SUV was. The awe-inspiring, dangerous stunt gained the media’s attention while helping to construct a sporty, more rugged brand image in the eyes of consumers. So naturally, the affair increased interest in its new SUV.
13. National Geographic’s Public T-Rex Autopsy
What appeared to be an injured T-Rex strapped to the back of a flatbed truck was seen cruising around the streets of London in what turns out to be a bizarre PR stunt brought to you by National Geographic. Naturally, the strange sight caught a great deal of attention.
Why it worked: It’s not every day you see a life-sized dinosaur replica, and never mind one being driven throughout the city. Not surprisingly, this put a lot of eyes on National Geographic and landed it a great deal of free press.
14. Tesla’s First Car in Space
Tesla doesn’t do traditional advertising, but that doesn’t mean it’s not heavily marketing in other ways—such as through PR stunts. In 2018, Tesla launched one of its Roadster models into space via a SpaceX rocket ship (both brands that Elon Musk owns). The spaceward stunt had a 50% chance of failure, but Musk opted to go for it anyway, landing them boasting rights as the first automaker in space.
Why it worked: Naturally, Tesla’s out-of-this-world stunt got a lot of press. What it also did was position Tesla in the minds of consumers as a high-end, modern, and “out of this world” automaker—setting it apart from other luxury automobile manufacturers that are often deemed stuffy and boring.
15. McDonald’s Women’s Day Flip
McDonald’s showed its support for women on International Women’s Day in 2019 by flipping its logo upside-down. Consumers around the world were caught by surprise to see the iconic golden arches flipped on its head. Many were left wondering if it was a prank, causing the PR stunt to gain a lot of press.
Why it worked: This PR stunt was a clever, low-cost way of showing McDonald’s support for women. In fact, it started several conversations about gender-based workplace biases. The stunt was met with some negativity from those who thought it overlooked the deeper meaning behind Women’s Day, though it did give McDonald’s the stage to share its stance on gender equality.
16. Bitcoin Fake Protest
Protests don’t exactly sound like a PR stunt, and yet they’re surprisingly common. It’s not just protesting against a rival brand (ahem, Salesforce), but companies are even staging protests at their own event and against their own company. In addition to EA Games and its fairly well-known fake protests, Bitcoin staged a protest of 8,500 people at the 2018 Consensus Blockchain Conference in NYC with the goal of getting press in a market flooded with noise.
Why it worked: Years later, we can see that Bitcoin’s goal was achieved. The idea behind the stunt was to gain the attention of people who have not yet invested in Bitcoin. While this is undoubtedly a risky stunt that gambles with negative press, it did manage to garner serious attention from the public—and publicity.
17. Richard Branson’s Attempt to Fly Around the World in a Hot Air Balloon
Virgin Airlines’ famous CEO Richard Branson has proven himself to be something of a PR stunt expert over the years, participating in a number of stunts landing the airline media headlines. One of his biggest stunts, however, involved a trek around the world—not in a Virgin airplane, but in a Virgin hot air balloon.
Why it worked: The first attempt to not only cross the Atlantic, but the world, in a hot air balloon was fascinating to many; it wasn’t a trek most people thought possible. To add even more press fuel to the fire, the stunt ended with a crash, leading to near-death headlines that the media (and world) loves. One would imagine this to be a black mark for Virgin, but it proved to be the opposite, showing that airlines are a truly safe mode of transport for globetrotters.
18. D.C. Comics Release of ‘The Death of Superman’
D.C. Comics released news of “The Death of Superman” in 2018, causing an uproar among its massive fan base. Deaths in comics are commonplace, but the death of Superman was an out-of-this-world concept. It’s still uncertain as to whether it was officially a marketing stunt, but it’s very likely that it was—controversial reveals often are.
Why it worked: The news of Superman’s potential death sparked conversations that lasted for weeks, giving D.C. a great deal of press and reigniting interest in the beloved comic series. It was a good way for a mature company to get people to talk about it without doing anything too contrived or counter to its brand and characters.
19. Tinder’s ‘Swipe Right to Adopt a Dog’ Campaign
In 2014, Tinder used its dating platform in a surprising new way, aimed at connecting singles to dogs available for adoption. The stunt was conducted in partnership with a U.S. animal rescue organization, creating a feel-good attitude toward the dating app. This was undoubtedly a boon, as the app has long had a reputation for facilitating risque connections.
Why it worked: The Tinder stunt successfully generated over 2,000 matches—or adoptions—in its first week. This showed that the platform’s design can be applied to charitable efforts and have a positive impact. In the saturated dating app market, companies struggle to set themselves apart, which successfully positioned Tinder as a company with a uniquely altruistic, pet-loving bent.
20. Eichborn Book Fair Flies
During the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, Eichborn Publishers used an uncanny way to attract event-goers to its exhibition booth. It attached tags on flies promoting its name and booth number. While no one likes flies landing on them, no one had seen a fly with a note attached to it before. This incited interest in the quirky and bizarre publisher.
Why it worked: The strange PR stunt of using flies as messengers seemed like something out of a fiction novel, making a lot of sense for a book publisher. The odd idea effectively got the attention it was seeking and generated a lot of interest in the publisher at the book fair. It’s a good example of thinking outside the box and creating a buzz with limited resources.
21. Israeli Food Bank
In an effort to increase public awareness of hunger and starvation, the Israeli Food Book distributed dinner plates across the city, setting them in sewer grates like a dish rack, with the message “too many people eat on the streets.” The low-cost publicity stunt provides evidence that creativity can overcome a low budget for landing publicity.
Why it worked: By bringing the marketing campaign to the streets in an obscure way, the nonprofit effectively captured the attention of locals, bringing awareness to their message. In return, the cause received an increase in public donations.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are the best tips for getting PR?
Getting PR isn’t easy, but there are certain steps you can take to help your chances of landing press. This includes everything—from understanding what is considered newsworthy and creating an event that people will not only talk about but respond to, to creating a positive brand image, making connections with journalists, and discovering the best channels to distribute your press release.
What is a press release?
A press release is a statement distributed to the media that explains a piece of news or event in detail. It is generally a one-page statement consisting of around 300 to 800 words. Press releases follow a standard format, so it’s generally advised that you use a template to craft your press release. After your press release is written, it needs to be distributed in order to gain the media’s interest. Learn how to create a press release in our article on press releases.
What are the best outlets for distributing a press release?
There are a number of good press distribution sites, including eReleases. The best press release distribution outlet will depend on how often you are sending press releases, how many outlets need to receive your releases, your budget, and your target media channels. For more information, read our article on the Top 6 Press Release Services.
When done right, PR stunts can be an effective way for businesses to market themselves and gain larger audiences. Create your own press-winning publicity stunts by coming up with an interesting and creative idea, developing a strategy, and attracting press outlets through press releases and contact outreach. For a faster, more affordable, and less risky way to land press quickly, submit a press release using a reliable distribution service, such as eReleases.