This is an entry that appeared a few weeks ago in my Southern Daily Echo blog:
Don Draper would never approve of burning copies of the Koran. You can tell that from the way, in the first episode of the new series of Mad Men, he gave short shrift to Peggy for mounting a publicity stunt to promote sales of one of their products. To Don, advertising is pure, setting up fake events is somehow dirty. So you can see how he wouldn’t agree with burning books to generate publicity.
This kind of PR been going on a lot longer than the 1960s. In their Top 50 publicity stunts, Taylor Herring include The Boston Tea Party where a group of American rebels threw British tea into Boston harbour to publicise the cause of American independence. The site also points out that carrying the Olympic torch through various countries started as a stunt to publicise the Games and the Tour de France began as an event to publicise a sports magazine.
Controversy is an easy way to attract publicity, like the splendid Be Stupid campaign by Diesel that was recently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority or Wonderbra’s ‘Hello Boys’ or Ryan Air pretty well every day. Pastor Terry Jones’ Koran burning proposal has certainly gained a disproportionate amount of fame for a church with only 50 members.
But the best stunts are ones which are news in themselves and enhance the product at the same time. So, on Mad Men, two women fighting over a branded tin of ham was newsworthy, and Don’s concern was only what would happen if it emerged that they had been paid to do it. I guess nowadays we’re not that surprised if an apparently spontaneous event that generates publicity for a business turns out to be a stunt. Remember Enimen’s apparent shock and disgust when a nearly naked ‘Borat’ abseiled down onto his face at a music awards event. After the massive publicity died down, it was revealed he was in on it from the start.
My favourite stunt from my own days as a publicist was when my theatre needed to check seats for wear and tear. I decided we should advertise for someone to do the job and suggested that their bottom would form part of the qualification. Straightaway, my own backside made the front page of the Echo. Then South Today filmed me opening the job applications which I arranged to include one from someone who’d included a photo of their bum. It was publicity but it also showed we cared about the comfort of our patrons.
This was similar in style, if not scale, to the greatest PR stunt of recent years- the estimated £35 million worth of publicity gained for Queensland Tourism when a simple vacancy as ‘caretaker’ of an island there became ‘the best job in the world’ in the hands of a PR agency. I think the key to good PR, that is a stunt that won’t backfire, is that it should come out of truth- in these cases, the need for a seat tester or an island caretaker.