AMBIENT MEDIA: THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF STUNT ADVERTISING - Why Ronnie the Rhino worked as a gimmick, but a blue newspaper didn’t

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.

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

good advertising.

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

distinctly underwhelmed.

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

the tightrope.)

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.