Craziest Marketing Stunts
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The Craziest Marketing Stunts of All Time

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Craziest Marketing Stunts
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They Did What?

Ford's dubious new gasoline-scented fragrance is just the latest in the grand tradition of marketing stunts — that is, when companies do something off the wall to create buzz, often for a new product or service. Marketing stunts aren't without risk: Hype may obscure a painfully bad product, but it can also overshadow legitimately good ones. Here are some of the most notable ways companies stopped at nothing to get tongues wagging and sales soaring.

Related: Companies That Rebranded to Avoid Being Canceled

Ford Mach-eau

Ford Debuts Gas-Scented Cologne (2021)

Electric vehicles are steadily gaining fans, and Ford is doing its part to make sure they don't miss the unmistakable smell of gasoline. In a stunt tied to the release of its all-electric Mustang Mach-E GT, the automaker debuted Mach-Eau (yes, really), a fragrance that smells not just like gas, but car interiors, rubber tires, and even some nebulous "animal element," according to The Verge. Unfortunately, Mach-Eau won't actually be sold, so electric-vehicle drivers may need to settle for one of those dangling tree-scented air fresheners instead. 

Related: The Best Mustangs of All Time

McDonalds Brazil Separate Golden Arches
McDonald's Brazil

McDonald's Separates Its Golden Arches (2020)

There's nothing like a global pandemic to bring a crashing halt to most brands' zaniest advertising ideas. Most companies played it safe, opting for schmaltzy commercials about "getting through this together" and the like, but McDonald's Brazil saw an opportunity to do something unprecedented. In a cheeky nod to social distancing, it separated the iconic Golden Arches. The move backfired on Twitter, where users slammed the stunt as insensitive.

Related: Which Fast-Food Chain Did Best During the Pandemic?

Adidas and Childish Gambino at Coachella

Adidas and Childish Gambino Hawk Shoes at Coachella (2019)

For a festival known more for music lovers trying to outdo one another with flower crowns and other over-the-top boho chic fashion statements, Adidas managed to bring loads of attention to a sportier product: a new pair of kicks designed by Childish Gambino, aka multi-hyphenate Donald Glover, for Adidas. A successful experiential marketing example, Glover used iPhone's Airdrop to send random festival-goers a photo of the sneakers, and those who accepted the file share received a free pair — after they contractually agreed to wear the shoes throughout the festival. Excited beneficiaries shared photos of the experience on Instagram, which created even more buzz. 

Related: The Secret Histories of Popular Brands

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

IHOP Fakes a Name Change (2018)

IHOP, the most ubiquitous pancake chain in America, announced in 2018 that it would change its name to "IHOb." After leaving the internet to speculate wildly for several days, it finally announced the "b" would stand not for "breakfast," but "burgers" — all to promote its new line of Ultimate Steakburgers. A month later, it admitted the stunt was temporary and reverted back to IHOP.

Related: IHOP Debuts New Flip'd Restaurant Concept

"Gilmore Girls" Pop-Up
Sarah Morris/Getty Images

Netflix Courts 'Gilmore' Fans with Luke's Diner Pop-Ups (2016)

TV executives have been on the reboot bandwagon for a while, but Netflix really hit it out of the park with its marketing for 2016's "Gilmore Girls" revival. The network made more than 100 coffee shops across the country into Luke's Diner, one of the most common settings in the series. The shops gave out free coffee and put up Luke's décor, including the necessary "NO CELL PHONES" signs. Lines of excited fans stretched for blocks.


Burger King Proposes a McWhopper Mashup (2015)

One of the best ways for companies to turn heads is by poking a rival. In 2015, Burger King took to the airwaves, printed ads, and posted on social media to propose a "McWhopper" collaboration with McDonald's in honor of the International Day of Peace. McDonald's wasn't impressed with the idea of a cross-brand, double-decker burger mashup, and sourly dinged Burger King for not calling them with the idea first.

Related: Brand Mashups You Never Saw Coming

Uber Cat Delivery

Uber Brings Kittens to Your Door (2013)

To mark National Cat Day, Uber started bringing kittens straight to users' doors for several minutes of cuddle time, donating the fee to local shelters. The stunt was so successful that it eventually expanded to nearly 60 cities from three, spurred countless media mentions, and resulted in hundreds of cat adoptions and thousands in donations. And don't worry: Uber prescreened for allergies.

Street view of Trafalgar Square

Tropicana Makes the 'Sun' Rise over London (2012)

London doesn't have a reputation for sunny weather, especially in the dead of winter. Tropicana saw the famously gloomy skies as a marketing opportunity, rigging up a giant 2.5-ton "sun" made with 60,000 lightbulbs to "rise" over Trafalgar Square one morning. Onlookers were given lounge chairs, sunglasses, and of course, free orange juice to enjoy while they "sunbathed."

Red Bull Stratos
Red Bull

Red Bull Sends a Skydiver into Space (2012)

In a stunt that may simply never be topped, Red Bull sent Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner on a 24-mile freefall — that is, from the edge of outer space. The unbelievable feat was live streamed, drawing 8 million YouTube viewers as Baumgartner broke several records, including fastest freefall and highest jump. He also broke the sound barrier during his jump, the first human to do so without a vehicle.

The Doritos Locos Taco
Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

Taco Bell Airlifts Taco Truck to Remote Alaska Town (2012)

There aren't a lot of restaurants in far-flung Bethel, Alaska, roughly 400 miles from Anchorage. So when a prankster put up fliers heralding the opening of a Taco Bell, residents got more than a little excited, only to have their hopes dashed. When Taco Bell learned of the cruel joke, it decided to step in with "Operation Alaska," using a massive helicopter to deliver a taco truck with enough ingredients to serve up 10,000 Doritos Locos tacos. "If we can feed people in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can feed people in Bethel," CEO Greg Creed deadpanned.

Related: Spicy Secrets Behind Taco Bell's Success

Indianapolis - Circa April 2017: Morton's The Steakhouse Downtown Restaurant. Morton's is a legendary steakhouse with its origins in Chicago I

Morton's Makes a Customer's Dreams Come True (2011)

Advertising stunts don't have to be expensive. Exhibit A: A customer wistfully tweeted Morton's Steakhouse, asking them to meet him at Newark's airport with a porterhouse after his plane touched down. Lo and behold, Morton's delivered, dispatching a waiter in a tux to meet the man with a juicy steak and all the fixings — and spurring plenty of favorable press.
JohnnyWalker61/istockphoto Bubble Wraps a Street (2010)

U.K. insurance comparison site identified some of the most accident-prone streets in the nation, but it didn't stop there: It decided to bubble wrap one of them. Trees, parked cars, even garden gnomes were covered as the site dubbed it "Accident Avenue." Bonus points: It happened to be the 50th anniversary of bubble wrap.

Dr Pepper truck in Dallas downtown

Dr. Pepper Provokes Guns N' Roses (2008)

In 2008, Dr. Pepper decided to troll Guns N' Roses by promising free soda to everyone in the country if the band released its "Chinese Democracy" album after keeping fans waiting for 14 years. The band released the album. Dr. Pepper scrambled to modify its promotion, forcing people to sign up online to get a coupon, but there were still so many thirsty deal-seekers that its website crashed, leaving many empty-handed. 400
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

LifeLock's CEO Gives out His Social Security Number (2007)

You have to hand it to LifeLock's CEO for putting his money where his mouth is. About 10 years ago, LifeLock started running ads prominently featuring Todd Davis' Social Security number everywhere from its website to billboards. Though his service was supposed to make the data "useless to a criminal," Davis ultimately had his identity stolen at least 13 times. Oops.

KFC Advertisement Nevada
Google Maps

KFC Tries Its Hand at 'Spacevertising' (2006)

KFC has a long, proud history of crazy marketing, but it's hard to top the chicken chain's "spacevertising" stunt — that is, an ad that could be seen from space. KFC chose Rachel, Nevada, which is notable for its proximity to Area 51, for the giant image of Colonel Sanders. Pieced together over the course of three months, it measured 87,500 square feet and was viewable on Google Maps for years after it was removed.

Related: The Biggest Fast-Food Flops of All Time

Snapple Make Deal With NYC
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Snapple Finds Itself in a Sticky Situation (2005)

Sometimes marketing stunts go terribly, horribly wrong. Just ask Snapple, which decided to mark the launch of its Snapple on Ice pops by erecting the world's biggest popsicle in New York City's Union Square. Before the 25-foot creation was complete, 80-degree temperatures sent kiwi strawberry slush oozing onto sidewalks and streets. Firefighters had to close off several blocks so they could hose away the goo.

Related: Iconic Foods Launched the Year You Were Born

New car gift. New white car with red gift ribbon.
Vitali Laurentsik/istockphoto

Oprah Gives Everyone a Free Pontiac (2004)

"You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!" Those words have become pop-culture gold and the source of countless internet memes. Oprah famously gave all 276 members of her studio audience a shiny new Pontiac G6, but the $7.7 million stunt ultimately did little to aid Pontiac itself, which shut its doors six years later in 2010. Audience members were also hit with taxes that sometimes totaled $6,000 or more per car.

GoldenPalace Spends $28,000 on a Grilled Cheese (2004)

Online casino GoldenPalace made a splash by buying a grilled cheese sandwich on eBay for nearly $30,000. But it wasn't just any sandwich: It was a decade-old sandwich bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary (or so the seller claimed). It was only one of GoldenPalace's buzz-building buys: The casino even paid $5,000 for a pregnancy test supposedly used by Britney Spears, and $65,000 on a "haunted" walking cane.

Burger King Promote New Chicken Website
Getty Images/ Getty Images

Burger King Perplexes Everyone with Its 'Subservient Chicken' (2004)

In 2004, Burger King unveiled, a website that let users tell a fully grown man in a chicken suit and garters what to do. Yeeeeeeah. It was vaguely kinky, it was kind of creepy, and it definitely set the internet abuzz. Burger King brought back the chicken 10 years later in a reboot that let the chicken "turn the tables" on its demanding fans, adding Dustin Diamond (Screech from "Saved By the Bell") for good measure.

Vodaphone Streaker Australia New Zealand Rugby Match
Ross Land/Getty Images

Vodafone Deploys Streakers at Rugby Match (2002)

Two streaking men painted with Vodafone logos stunned onlookers when they ran onto the field during a crucial moment in a rugby match between Australia and New Zealand in 2002. Vodafone later admitted to backing the law-breaking stunt by agreeing to pay any fines the streakers would face. But the company faced a lot of blowback from the stunt and was forced to publish apologies in major newspapers.

Virgin Atlantic Airways Boeing 747-443 cn 30885-1268 G-VROS.

Virgin Atlantic Trolls British Airways with a Blimp (2000)

Back in 2000, British Airways was the main sponsor during the construction of the London Eye, the now-iconic Ferris wheel that towers over the River Thames. Predictably, the project hit some snags, and Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic seized the opportunity to take a swipe at its rival in a big way. The airline sent a blimp to fly over the construction site with the message, "BA CAN'T GET IT UP!" The quick-thinking stunt drew chuckles from onlookers, and more importantly, stole the limelight from British Airways.

Related: Celebrity Businesses That Flopped by Finetooth (CC BY) Buys an Entire Town (1999)

It can be hard for start-ups to hold their own against established rivals with big advertising budgets, so now-defunct books and music sales platform decided it was time to get on the map — literally. It convinced the tiny Oregon town of Halfway to change its name to in exchange for a package of economic incentives such as subsidized internet and a company call center. The town ended up getting only some money and computers, with other promises going unfulfilled.

Blair Witch Project

'Blair Witch Project' Fakes Actors' Deaths (1999)

Clever marketing can be the difference between box-office success and dismal failure for movies — especially ones without big budgets. "The Blair Witch Project" remains the gold standard. The movie was preceded by obituaries, a fake documentary, and plenty of guerrilla marketing online. The actors were even listed as "missing, presumed dead" on IMDb, the Internet Movie Database site. The movie went on to make nearly $250 million — not bad for an original budget of around $60,000.


Mattel Paints an Entire Street Pink (1997)

"Barbie pink" has become downright iconic, and in 1997, Mattel decided to drum up some buzz by coating an entire street in the bubblegum-like color for a month. A street in Manchester, England, was chosen for the honor after residents agreed to the stunt in exchange for donations to local charities. Persistent rain almost scrubbed the effort, but a last-minute push left everything from lampposts, window frames, and even the street itself into the shocking shade.

Taco Bell Liberty Bell

Taco Bell 'Buys' the Liberty Bell (1996)

In what may have been the most epic April Fools' marketing stunt of all time, Taco Bell used full-page ads in national newspapers to claim it had bought the Liberty Bell, henceforth to be known as the "Taco Liberty Bell." Duped readers spent the day flooding the National Park Service's phone lines to vent their outrage.

Pepsi Concorde
Pepsi Concorde by Richard Vandervord (CC BY)

Pepsi Rebrands a Concorde (1996)

Back in 1996, now-decommissioned Concorde turbojets were something special indeed — there were only 20, and they could sustain cruising speeds up to a whopping 1,350 mph. Pepsi decided it needed a piece of this prestige, paying a confidential amount to have a Concorde painted blue and emblazoned with its logo. The jet completed only 16 flights to 10 cities with the special paint — it turns out the blue paint couldn't reflect or radiate heat as well as white, which meant the plane couldn't sustain its signature top speeds for more than 20 minutes.

Michael Jackson Statue
Michael Jackson Statue by Sjors Provoost (CC BY)

Michael Jackson Floats Own Statue down the Thames (1995)

Michael Jackson rarely shied from a spectacle, and the marketing for his "HIStory" album in 1995 is a perfect example. The star reportedly suggested executives "build a statue of me" to create buzz, and so they did — but not a small one, and not just one. Nine 32-foot Michael Jackson statues were placed in European cities, and one was even floated down the River Thames in London to promote the album.


Guinness Sends a Message in a Bottle — 200,000 Times (1954)

During a decades-old stunt that would never pass muster in today's more eco-conscious times, Guinness decided to dump 50,000 beer bottles with messages inside into the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. In 1959, they did it again, sending 150,000 bottles with a message from "King Neptune" plummeting into the Atlantic. The bottles have turned up all over, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand.