The name of the 70s group escapes me, but the title of their album
is etched forever in my memory - Cunning Stunts. Even a schoolboy
without a working knowledge of the Reverend Spooner could see (nudge
nudge, wink wink) what they were getting at. I mention this only because
it serves as a neat reminder of what can go wrong. Of how, perhaps more
than any other form of advertising, stunts can backfire on you.
It’s not that stunts are intrinsically different from other kinds of
advertising. All the usual adjectives apply - be relevant, original,
impactful, involving. It’s just that stunts are so much more public, so
much more confrontational, that you inevitably walk a tightrope between
success and falling flat on your face.
The word ’stunt’ carries with it plenty of negative baggage. It implies
something almost foolhardy, often gratuitous, a little vulgar
For some, it’s all mouth and no trousers. When, in fact, all you want to
do is communicate your point in the most effective way possible.
Like a film stuntman, it pays to be brave but it also pays to take
precautions. (After all, the life of a brand is at stake.)
When Kiss FM launched in London a few years ago, they sent a see-through
bus around the capital full of young people energetically dancing to the
latest disco beats. The twist was that the bus was soundproofed so
passers-by couldn’t hear any music, but could only watch (and envy) the
fun the dancers were clearly having. The line on the bus was, ’To find
out what they’re dancing to tune into Kiss 100 FM’. Gratuitous? No, just
Something that brought the brand to life in the most appropriate way.
Kiss stands for dancing and having a good time. Want some?
In 1995, after escalating crowd violence at football matches in Italy
culminating in a stabbing incident in Genoa, Saatchi and Saatchi Milan
was asked to come up with advertising that would bring genuine fans
So what did they do? Write a brilliant poster or TV ad about how bad the
football violence was? Or think more laterally?
The agency persuaded team members from AC Milan and Sampdoria, who were
meeting the following week in a league match, to swap shirts before -
rather than after, as is the tradition - the match. The sight of players
such as Mancini, Vialli and Maldini making a gesture of reconciliation
made news across Italy. The point was made in an effective, relevant and
involving way. Not all mouth and no trousers, but the best possible
solution to a difficult problem.
As with any form of advertising, it’s important to be original.
Inevitably, the general election brought with it a plethora of fringe
candidates, many attempting to advertise a particular brand or product.
And, of course, plethora is the problem. How can a stunt be original if
everyone else is doing it too? It’s a bit like everyone doing a
Valentine’s Day ad or an April Fool ad. It’s clever the first time,
quite clever the second time, but predictable from then on. But this is
not to say it won’t work if it’s relevant to the local market. In Leeds,
the eponymous rugby league team put up their match mascot, Ronnie the
Rhino, as a candidate in a high-profile seat to publicise their new Sky
Sports-influenced Super League incarnation as the Leeds Rhinos. In an
election where public lack of interest was at an all-time high, such
disdain for national, political seriousness replaced with a celebration
of local sporting heroes hit the right note.
But, be warned - if you hit the wrong note, it would come across as
nothing more than lazy bandwagon jumping.
Of course, one person’s bandwagon jumping is another person’s carefully
thought out marketing strategy. The Tango orangeman’s hijacking of News
at Ten last year was inspired. There aren’t many brands that can just
dress someone up and get them to prance up and down behind a
parliamentary news reporter and get away with it - but Tango could do
this because they’d invested millions of pounds telling people that’s
what they stood for - anarchy, danger and a challenge to the (soft
drinks) status quo.
Stunts are usually incremental to the main advertising communication and
so it’s vital to make them consistent with it. Then, ideas such as the
Tango orangeman on News at Ten become, not an annoyance, but rather a
surprising but welcome appearance from the representative of a brand you
know and love.
When PepsiCo spent millions of pounds telling the public its Pepsi cans
were changing to a blue livery last year, it didn’t seem to matter how
spectacular the stunts were, it all went rather flat. On paper, the idea
of making the Daily Mirror blue for a day might have seemed brave and
adventurous but, in the end, the question on most people’s lips was:
’What are you trying to say?’ The importance of the new livery may have
seemed huge to the marketing team, but I think it left consumers
Part of the problem was that Pepsi hadn’t built up enough of a brand
image to play off. Such lack of advertising foreplay resulted in what
was meant to be big, bold and exciting coming over as clumsy and
(And, apparently, badly prepared too. The Pepsi Blue Concorde couldn’t
actually fly at supersonic speed, much to the delight of the assembled
hordes of tabloid hacks.)
But this is just my opinion, of course. I’m sure a member of the Pepsi
marketing team is already brandishing pen and paper (or computer) to
fire off a forceful e-mail detailing the incredible success the
operation enjoyed in terms of raising public awareness, blah blah blah
Which, of course, begs the question: how do you measure the
effectiveness of a stunt? I don’t really know. Some cases are easier to
judge than others.
When we recently advertised the launch of a new thriller for
HarperCollins, Final Judgement, we decided the most effective way to use
the money available was to produce a series of stunts, graffiti-ing
bookshop fronts, walls and donated poster sites with the words. ’Brett
Allen is innocent’, then ’guilty’, then ’innocent’ and so on, until the
book’s title was eventually revealed. (Brett Allen is the hero of the
When a taxi driver assured me as he dropped me at Charlotte Street
(which had also been covered in graffiti for the duration) that we
weren’t alone in suffering at the hands of ’graffiti maniacs’ but it was
worth it because Brett Allen was definitely innocent, it was clear the
stunt was starting to work. When the book entered the bestseller list at
number four, the effect became tangible.
The important thing is to decide in advance is how you are going to
judge a stunt’s effectiveness. Who, or what are you trying to influence?
In Tango or Pepsi’s case, it must have been very difficult to measure
accurately whether the money spent was worth it (though perhaps easier
for the former than the latter). In the case of Brett Allen, fourth
place on the bestseller list will do nicely, thanks.
Of course, one sure way to maximise the effect of any stunt is to make
sure your PR is prepared well in advance. (This has the added advantage
of forcing you to think about the pros and cons before you step on to
Stunts may not show up on tracking studies, let alone any econometric
model, but if your staff, the trade or sales force gets a buzz out of it
and consumers write lots of letters and, even better, newspapers or TV
cover the story positively, it would be churlish not to say you’ve got a
The best stunt ever? Well, it’s got to be that other book campaign from
way back when where they got the hero’s body to disappear from the cave
overnight. You can’t argue with the sales figures on that one.