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13 Of The Worst Publicity Stunts In History

When bizarre tweets started coming from Chipotle’s Twitter handle Tuesday — like, “twitter Find avocado store in Arv” — the public thought that it had been hacked. This theory gained traction after Chipotle tweeted later, “Sorry all. We had a little problem with our account. But everything is back on track now! – Joe.” 


Chipotle admitted to Mashable that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to gain more attention and followers for its 20th anniversary. Chipotle usually gets 250 new followers a day, but during this little stunt it gained 4,000 followers.

While the fake hacking was just strange and jeopardized consumer trust, it wasn’t a PR disaster of epic proportions.

Here’s a list of some marketing stunts that went horribly wrong.

LifeLock’s CEO gave out his social security number and challenged people to steal his identity. They did. A lot of them did.


LifeLock CEO Todd Davis was asking for this one, literally.

In 2006, Davis posted his social security number on billboards, online ads, TV commercials, everywhere he could, to prove that LifeLock’s service — which costs $10 to $15 a month — would protect his identity. A couple years later, word got out that his identity was stolen from the stunt. Thirteen times. There were 87 failed attempts. Davis said that this proved LifeLock worked, obviously, since identity thieves were only successful 13 times, the Federal Trade Commission disagreed and fined the company $12 million for deceptive advertising in March 2010.


Paid Gunmen stormed an “Iron Man 3″ screening


A theater in Missouri thought that it would be a great idea to have a group of actors dressed in tactical gear, and sporting fake guns, to storm a theater screening “Iron Man 3″ in May. In light of the “Dark Knight Rises” shootings that had occurred less than a year before, this was a really bad idea. The local police station received multiple calls about the stunt and an Army vet said that the stunt triggered his PTSD.

The theater soon apologized on its Facebook page. ”This was not a publicity stunt … We didn’t clearly tell our customers and some people didn’t realize it was for entertainment purposes only.”


South Australian government sent 55 dead goldfish to media agencies.


The South Australian government approved a publicity stunt in 2011 where they sent 55 goldfish to media executives to promote a tour by Advantage SA. A message was printed the fishbowl: “Be a big fish in a small pond and come and test the water.”

The problem? In spite of providing enough food to last each fish 6 months, most of the fish were already dead when they arrived. “South Australia does have a reputation for the worst water in Australia but this is going too far,” a media executive told The Australian.


The Department of Defense flew a plane low over Manhattan for a photo shoot.


In April of 2009, workers in downtown Manhattan were distressed (to say the least) to see a low-flying Boeing 747 circling close to the very same area that had been hit by two commercial airplanes on 9/11. Why? The Department of Defense thought that it would be a great photo op.

Talk about a really bad move. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama was “furious” about the 2009 incident.


Snapple tried to make the world’s largest popsicle in 2005 but forgot popsicles melt.


On a warm June day in New York City, Snapple decided that it would try to make the world’s largest popsicle in Union Square. Then the 25-foot-tall, 17.5 ton frozen Snapple snack started to melt, and it melted fast. Union Square was flooded in strawberry-kiwi flavored liquid and the fire department even had to close surrounding streets.

Sony created a fake fan site about the PSP.


To create buzz for the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Sony created a fake blog they called  www.alliwantforxmasisapsp.com that raved about the new system, featuring fun video blogs about the new item. Until gamers found out that the site was registered to viral marketing agency Zipatoni. Fans slammed the company on legitimate message boards, and the stunt ended in disaster.

A “hold your wee for a Wii” contest ends in tragedy.


In 2007, a radio station held a “hold your wee for a Wii” contest where people competed to see who could drink the most water without using a bathroom. The next day, contest participant Jennifer Strange, 28, was found dead in her home of water intoxication. Strange reportedly competed to win the Wii for her children.

Cartoon Network accidentally convinced Bostonians it put bombs around the city.


To promote the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” movie, Cartoon Network hid glowing, metal, LED signs (depicting the show’s characters) around major cities but when Bostonians noticed the devices hidden around the city, they began calling the police and fire department to report explosive devices. Turner Broadcasting and marketing company Interference Inc. had to pay $2 million in damages for the stunt.

A marketing guru decided to stage a train crash for publicity. Three people were killed. 


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There were even horrible publicity stunts back in the 1800s. In 1896, in an attempt to get people to buy train tickets to Texas, marketer William Crush decided to build a “temporary” city that would host a train crash. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad offered discounts to people who wanted to travel to Crush, Texas and watch the crash — almost 50,000 people went. Even though crowds were seated at a supposedly “safe” distance from the crash, special tracks were made, and the crew was able to jump from the trains before they collided, but things didn’t go according to plan. Two boilers exploded when the trains crashed at 45 mph. Three people were killed and dozens more were injured. 

Sin to Win.


Prior to the 2010 release of a video game based on Dante’s Inferno, developer EA had a not-so-brilliant idea for a publicity stunt for the game at Comic-Con. The company held a “sin to win” contest, in which “acts of lust” caught on camera with the event’s booth babes would offer a chance to win a date with two beautiful women, a limo service, paparazzi, and a chest full of booty, pun almost certainly intended. But Electronic Arts, being the big corporation it is, had to cover its ass and (likely) kick that of a marketing team that promised horny gamers “a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi and a chest full of booty.” 

Elephant electrocuted by Edison.


Everyone knows the name Thomas Edison, known as a decent thinker and brilliant businessman. Some people, however, are much less familiar with the feud between Edison and Nikola Tesla over alternating current versus direct current. Edison had his money in direct current, and Tesla was in alternating current. Supporters of direct current (mostly those who stood to profit from it) spoke of the danger posed by alternating current.

Edison, not wanting to compromise his enormous profits from direct current, vehemently denied the claims that alternating current was far superior, and organized a series of animal executions to prove how dangerous it could be. When Edison learned that a zoo elephant, Topsy, was to be executed for killing three of her handlers in the past three years, he saw a fantastic marketing ploy. So when plans to hang the elephant were scrapped for humanitarian reasons, Edison offered to have the animal killed by electrocution. When the day came, Topsy the elephant was fed cyanide-laced carrots just prior to the idiotic execution, and when the current came she was killed instantly. Edison gained nothing from the spectacle other than a marred reputation: alternating current very quickly showed its vast superiority to Edison’s direct current. 

Free Speeding for a Day.


Back to recent times, just before the launch of “Burnout 2: Point of Impact”, game publisher Acclaim thought it would be a great idea to pay off all speeding tickets issued in the UK on the day it was released. Instantly the company was slammed with promoting reckless driving. The police got involved and the idea never became a reality.  

Hanging an Elephant.


In 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows was struggling to compete against larger circuses, including Barnum & Bailey, and needed something to put them above the competition. While the other circuses had events everyone loved, such as the guy who gets launched out of the cannon and the freak show, Sparks could only compete with some painted dogs, a few terrifying clowns and a few other exhibits that kids just yawned at. Oh, and elephants. Elephants are pretty important in this one.

Out of all the elephants Sparks had, Mary was their biggest draw. They claimed she was the biggest elephant on Earth, and was worth well over $20,000. On September 11, the circus was in Virginia, and Sparks decided to hire a new elephant trainer, and the only candidate who showed up was Red Eldridge, a hobo whose last job was as a janitor. After one day of training, the circus moved on into Kingsport, Tenn. There, they set up for a circus, but there was one problem: Eldridge was annoyed at Mary and hooked her ear to get her to move. Mary killed the new “trainer” by throwing him against a drink stand and crushing his head, thus proving hooks are no match for a five-ton off elephant. That, however, was not the publicity stunt, that was real.

As she had killed someone, the elephant was put on trial (that also was real, just remember, this is 1916 Tennessee). After Mary was sentenced to death, she was shot, again and again and agian. After a dozen or so bullets, Mary didn’t even appear to be hurt. So the town devised some new ways, but deemed electrocution and crushing her between two railroad cars to be too cruel (as compared to, say, repeatedly shooting her in the face).

Then they found an “uncruel” way: hanging Mary with a giant crane. Here’s where the publicity stunt finally comes in.

Sparks was upset at losing his $20,000 elephant but decided to make the best of the situation by promoting the hanging of Mary and turning it into a one-time publicity stunt for the faltering circus. On her day of execution, over 2,500 people showed up in Erwin, Tenn. and watched Mary the elephant get hanged. More than once, actually, as the chain broke a few times, causing the elephant — still alive, mind you — to fall and break her hip and toes before they found a chain to hold her weight.

The stunt worked, as right after the hanging, people went right into the circus. Today, the city of Erwin uses the stunt to sell memorabilia. They plaster the hanging scene on everything from T-shirts to murals on town buildings.

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