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Updated Oct 23, 2023

6 Crazy Marketing Gimmicks Gone Horribly Wrong

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Chad Brooks, Business Strategy Insider Managing Editor

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While marketing campaigns are designed to drum up publicity, they don’t always have the intended outcome.

New York City’s Rich Tu quickly learned that lesson after spending 24 hours in jail following a late-night attempt to drum up exposure for his event management app, Pozzle.

It was 2011, and Tu was feeling good after the company hit several milestones. He decided on a local marketing strategy that involved plastering New York City with 1,000 stickers bearing his company’s logo.

“I was feeling pretty invincible, so I thought, ‘Let’s do something crazy,'” Tu recalled.

When Tu and Pozzle co-founder Charles Jamerlan had placed more than 500 stickers around the city and were wrapping up their impromptu guerilla marketing campaign around 2 a.m., things took a turn for the worse: They were arrested for vandalism.

Tu spent the next 24 hours in New York City’s central booking, sharing a cell with armed robbers, turnstile hoppers and Occupy Wall Street protesters. He was eventually released and ordered to do 21 hours of community service.

Despite the harrowing experience, Tu said he has no regrets.

“I think it got people interested in my story and helped push the app,” he said of his ill-fated sticker campaign.

Through the years, many other companies have run into problems after launching well-intended marketing campaigns. Here’s a look at guerilla marketing tactics and a rundown of a few of the biggest marketing blunders of all time.

TipTip

Another out-of-the-box marketing idea is getting your product into a celebrity’s hands. This kind of exposure can be a huge steppingstone for a new business.

What is guerilla marketing?

Guerilla marketing is an unconventional business marketing method where brands use out-of-the-box ideas (usually on a large scale) to interest, shock, or awe an audience, with the goal of driving awareness for a new product or service.

This method is accessible by design; both startups and large brands can guerilla market to consumers, as it’s a potentially low-cost self-promotion avenue.

Guerilla marketing has its roots in 1984, when Jay Conrad Levinson published Guerilla Marketing and sold 21 million copies. The American business writer is credited with coining the term, which was inspired by “guerilla warfare” and refers to something low-cost and unconventional.

Famously successful guerilla marketing examples include the Wienermobile from Oscar Mayer (which took to the roads in 1936!) and the more recent campaign of red balloons tied to sewers in Sydney, Australia, to promote the 2017 movie It.

Here are a few examples of guerilla marketing stunts that were less successful and have become infamous.

TipTip

If you enjoy reading about these marketing fails, check out our article on the worst ATM robbery fails.

Cartoon Network

In the post-9/11 era of heightened awareness, placing strange electronic devices on street corners and bridges across the country probably isn’t the best idea, as Cartoon Network learned back in 2007.

The cable station planted dozens of blinking electronic devices in 10 cities as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign promoting the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The campaign went awry in Boston when a worried resident called police, fearing the devices were explosives. The incident turned into a full-blown terrorism scare, with police sending in bomb squads and shutting down Boston-area bridges.

In the end, going viral on social media wasn’t worth it. The stunt cost Cartoon Network head Jim Samples his job and the station’s parent company, Turner Broadcasting, $2 million to pay for Boston’s emergency response.

Snapple

Going bigger isn’t always better, as Snapple found in 2005 when it attempted to erect the world’s largest popsicle in New York’s Times Square.

The stunt might have worked had the drink maker not tried to set up the 25-foot-tall popsicle – made of frozen Snapple beverage and weighing 17.5 tons – on an 80-degree June day. The frozen treat began to melt as it was lifted upright, flooding downtown Manhattan with kiwi-strawberry Snapple.

Firefighters had to be called in to close off streets and hose down the mess.

Paramount

In 2006, Paramount Pictures discovered it wasn’t good to mess with a person’s daily newspaper.

In a campaign to promote the movie Mission Impossible III, Paramount put small, red musical devices inside 4,500 L.A. Times newspaper boxes.

When the boxes were opened, the devices would play the Mission Impossible theme song – but the stunt left readers singing a different tune. The campaign backfired when customers noticed the devices and were afraid that the boxes contained a bomb. In one instance, the Santa Clarita bomb squad was called in.

“This was the least-intended outcome,” said John O’Loughlin, L.A. Times’ senior vice president of planning at the time. “We weren’t expecting anything like this.”

Heart Attack Grill

A rather morbid marketing failure ended up being no stunt at all for the Las Vegas restaurant Heart Attack Grill, but many people thought it was.

The restaurant – where diners are given surgical gowns as they choose from a menu offering “Bypass burgers,” “Flatliner fries” and buttermilk shakes – had one customer take its message to heart.

In February 2012, the diner suffered a heart attack while eating the restaurant’s Triple-Bypass Burger. Other customers looked on, thinking the incident, complete with a visit from local paramedics, was all part of an act.

Owner Jon Basso was forced to defend the restaurant against claims that the incident was staged to drum up publicity. “It was no joke,” he told the Associated Press at the time. “We would never pull a stunt like that.”

TipTip

If you’re hoping for a less disastrous marketing campaign, some of the best tips for creating a great marketing plan are to create an executive summary, identify your target market, and identify competitors that target your customers.

Vodafone

Vodafone, a business phone system provider, has tried and failed to jump on the guerilla marketing bandwagon on two separate occasions.

In 2002, New Zealand played its rival Australia for the Bledisloe Cup, an annual rugby competition held since the 1930s. Someone in the Vodafone New Zealand marketing department, without approval or buy-in from the CEO, hired streakers to storm the field. Not only was it an embarrassing, uninspired stunt, but the streak also happened at a pivotal point in the match that ended up negatively affecting a penalty kick.

New Zealand lost the cup, and Vodafone NZ took most of the flak for the incident – paying a $100,000 fine and taking out full-page ads in papers across the country to apologize for the stunt.

Not to be outdone, Vodafone Romania hired professional pickpockets to slip flyers into people’s pockets and purses that read “It’s that easy to get into your pocket” to advertise phone insurance in 2009. As you might expect, this stunt did not go over well, with many consumers feeling violated.

Apatow Productions

In preparation for the release of the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Judd Apatow’s ad campaign featured thousands of billboards and posters displaying hastily scrawled messages, such as “You suck, Sarah Marshall,” “You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall,” and “My mother always hated you, Sarah Marshall.”

While the idea was absolutely out of the box, the hundreds of real Sarah Marshalls didn’t appreciate the unintentional smear campaign on their name. Many took pictures next to the signs with disapproving faces.

The campaign worked in favor of one Sarah Marshall, however. This Sarah owned the domain SarahMarshall.com and received 20,000 website hits because of the signs.

Sean Peek contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Chad Brooks, Business Strategy Insider Managing Editor
Chad Brooks is the author of How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business. He has spent more than 10 years guiding prospective entrepreneurs and business owners on the ins and outs of launching a startup, scaling a company and maintaining profitable growth. Within the world of entrepreneurship, he is particularly passionate about small business communications tools, such as unified communications systems, video conferencing solutions and conference call services. Brooks, who holds a degree in journalism from Indiana University, has lent his business expertise to a number of esteemed publications, including Huffington Post, CNBC, Fox Business and Laptop Mag. He regularly consults with B2B companies to stay on top of the latest business trends and direct growing enterprises toward the modern-day business technology required in today's digitally advanced world.
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