10 Marketing Gimmicks Gone Wrong

by Staff Writer

Companies are like insecure teenage girls: they want your money and will do almost anything for attention. Most corporations have better marketing strategists than teenagers, and come up with creative publicity stunts that reach a wide audience and promote their brand. Every once in while, though, you find a gimmick that must've sounded good in the pitch meetings but ended up totally backfiring. Here are 10 marketing stunts that didn't go according to plan.

  1. Aqua Teen Hunger Force bomb scare

    Boston has a high enough profile that it could reasonably be the target of a terrorist attack, and citizens and authorities are right to be cautious if they see a potential threat. Of course, Cartoon Network and its parent company, Turner Broadcasting, didn't consider this fact when they launched a guerrilla marketing campaign for the late-night animated show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. They hung small electronic circuit boards that displayed light-up depictions of the show's characters, and they thought bridges in the busy commercial district in Boston would be the perfect place for their pseudo-ads to be seen. And people did see them; a train passenger, seeing the board and wires sticking out, mistook them for bombs. She notified police, who blew up one of the devices and shut down highways and two bridges. Once the stunt was understood for what it was, two men were arrested for placing a hoax device and for disorderly conduct.

  2. Casa Sanchez tattoos

    The Sanchez family, who owns a taqueria in California, seriously underestimated the appeal of their burritos — or the lengths people will go to get free food. When the restaurateurs put a sign in the window of Casa Sanchez offering free lunch for life to anyone who would tattoo its logo on themselves, they didn't think anyone would take it seriously. But people did. A few inked customers turned into 40 fans sporting the tattoos. And then the owners did the math. If those people took full advantage of their lifetime commitment, coming in for an $8 lunch every day for 50 years, it would cost the restaurant $5.8 million. After running those astounding numbers, the Sanchez family decided to cap the number of people who could get the deal at 50, and interview potential life-time customers to see how hungry they seemed. The logo, in case you were wondering, is a little boy in a sombrero riding an ear of corn that looks like a rocket ship.

  3. Hold Your Wee for a Wii radio contest

    Radio stations are notorious for coming up with crazy contests to hook listeners and get publicity. KDND 107.9 in California thought they could get a little buzz for a contest where people would see how much water they could drink without going to the bathroom. They called it "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" and planned to give the winner the video game system. They got a lot more buzz than they anticipated, though, when a contestant died from water intoxication. She had been the runner-up in the contest, and complained of her head hurting when she quit. Ten employees at the radio station, including the hosts of the show during which the contest aired, were fired. The woman's husband won a $16.5 million case against the station.

  4. Snapple popsicle meltdown

    Everybody loves to hear about new world records, the stranger the better. Snapple, the juice and tea company, thought that breaking a weird record as appetizing as World's Largest Popsicle would be the perfect marketing stunt. They created the popsicle, 35,000 pounds and 25 feet tall, out of kiwi-strawberry Snapple, and shipped it in a freezer truck to Times Square in New York where they planned to erect it. Despite all the careful preparation, the marketing team chose the first day of summer, when the temperature hit a balmy 80 degrees, to pull off this stunt. As the crane started to raise the giant popsicle, pink liquid rushed out, covering the street in sticky Snapple juice. The officials called off the attempt to stand the popsicle upright fearing that the structure had been compromised and would collapse, and fire trucks cleaned up the mess.

  5. Balloon Boy

    It's not often that you find a family that tries something outrageous just to get publicity, but in 2009, TVs across America were tuned in to watch the Heene family worry about their son who was flying through the air in a homemade helium balloon. Richard and Mayumi Heene called up authorities when the family's balloon was released and they feared their six-year-old was inside. Eventually, the boy turned up and said he was hiding in the attic. But in an interview for Larry King Live, Falcon Heene said his parents had told him they were doing this for the show, meaning the reality show they hoped their publicity would inspire. The family wasn't offered a TV deal, and both adult Heenes received jail time for the hoax.

  6. JMP Creative crane stunt

    When your CEO is a former magician, you know the publicity stunts are going to be crazy. Jim McCafferty decided to start a marketing company, JMP Creative, and wanted to kick it off with something spectacular. And if you want something done right, you should do it yourself. McCafferty got someone to put him in a straightjacket, close him in a steel cage, and then lift him up 300 feet in the air with a crane. The CEO was supposed to escape the cage within a certain amount of time before it dropped to the ground. He didn't quite make it out in time and had plummeted 60 feet before being able to attach himself to a harness and avoid death. He did have second-degree rope burns, though, which had to be treated at a hospital. The gimmick apparently got someone's attention, and the company is now worth millions of dollars.

  7. Edison's elephant

    Today when animals are put down, it's normally done in a fairly humane way. But in 1903, things were a little different. One zoo decided it needed to get rid of its elephant, Topsy, after she had killed three of her handlers. When zoo officials thought electrocution might be the best method, Thomas Edison jumped at the opportunity. He had been in a feud with George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla over whether their alternating current, or AC, was better than his direct current, DC. To prove that AC was dangerous, Edison used it to doom Topsy, and made it a public event. Fifteen-hundred people showed up and Edison filmed the execution. Today we all use AC anyway, and though we remember Edison, it's definitely not in association with this tasteless exhibition.

  8. Molson partying campaign

    College kids may enjoy getting drunk and going wild, but their parents certainly don't appreciate corporations encouraging it. So when Molson Coors Brewing Co. in Canada started a contest aimed at university students (many of whom are too young to drink) that seemed to reward the most drunken, outrageous parties, many college officials and community members were concerned. The campaign, which attempted to use social media to reach one of the company's target audiences, asked students to upload their craziest party pictures to Facebook to compete for the title of Canada's top party school. The winner would be sent on a trip to Cancun with four friends. Molson ended up scrapping the contest after public backlash. That probably isn't the end of drunk college kids, though. Sorry, Canada.

  9. Cocaine energy drink

    If you want your product to get attention, just name it after an illegal substance. That's what the makers of Cocaine, an energy drink, discovered. The beverage doesn't contain any cocaine, but it does have a ton of caffeine, more than its competitors Red Bull and Rockstar. The makers didn't have much money for advertising so they chose the controversial name and let angry politicians and talk show hosts do the work for them for free. Legal trouble was a bit more than they had bargained for, though. The FDA made the manufacturers take Cocaine off the shelves because it was "illegally marketing the drink as both a street drug alternative and a dietary supplement." The makers renamed the drink "No Name" for a while to put it back on shelves, but it is supposedly back in stores now — with lots of warnings about how dumb you have to be to believe the drink contains cocaine.

  10. Pontiac's Oprah giveaway

    We've all heard about the show where Oprah Winfrey gave every member of her studio audience a brand new car, but most of us probably don't remember that they got Pontiac G6 sedans. GM, the company that owns Pontiac, donated the 276 cars to the show, but most of the credit went to Oprah who had nothing to do with acquiring them. At $21,000 per vehicle, the cars alone cost GM about $5.8 million. Add in administrative costs and GM officials say the gimmick cost somewhere around $8 million. It's not that it was a bad marketing technique; the publicity just didn't go to the company that put up all the cash. Oprah is probably very thankful, though, since this giveaway made people love her even more than they did before.

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