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Updated Jun 04, 2024

8 Crazy Marketing Gimmicks Gone Horribly Wrong

Learn what not to do in guerilla marketing from companies that made costly mistakes.

Natalie Hamingson
Written By: Natalie HamingsonBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Marketing is all about grabbing your target audience’s attention. Guerilla marketing does just that — often in fun and creative ways that can pleasantly surprise prospective customers. But what happens when guerilla marketing goes wrong? The eight companies below learned that answer the hard way. Read ahead for examples of what not to do for your guerilla marketing campaign and tips on how to get guerilla marketing right.

Another out-of-the-box marketing idea is getting a celebrity endorsement for your product. This kind of exposure can be a huge stepping stone for a new business.

What is guerilla marketing?

Guerilla marketing is an unconventional business marketing method in which brands use out-of-the-box ideas (usually on a large scale) to interest, shock or awe an audience and drive awareness for a new product or service. Startups and established brands alike can use guerilla marketing to reach consumers because it’s a potentially low-cost promotional avenue.

Guerilla marketing originated 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 is 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 campaign of red balloons tied to sewers in Sydney, Australia, to promote the 2017 movie It.

Did You Know?Did you know
Grasshopper, one of the best phone systems for small businesses, has enjoyed success using guerilla marketing tactics. In a 2016 campaign to promote the company's rebrand, it sent chocolate-covered grasshoppers to over 5,000 influencers for a unique multi-sensory marketing experience.

Examples of guerilla marketing gone wrong

Over the years, many companies have encountered problems after launching well-intended marketing campaigns. Here are a few examples of guerilla marketing fails that have become infamous.


Airbnb’s “Night At” campaign in 2018 was successful in many regards. The campaign offered customers the chance to win a free one-night stay at cultural landmarks all over the world. Airbnb transformed iconic locations, including the Louvre in Paris and Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania, into lodgings for an immersive experience.

However, the company was forced to cancel its plans after offering the chance to spend the night in a custom-built bedroom on the Great Wall of China. The campaign received immense opposition both from Chinese government officials and citizens for multiple reasons.

The offering was largely viewed as disrespectful to the UNESCO historical site. Additionally, the Great Wall is not open to the public because of the high risk of damage. Allowing tourists to stay on the Great Wall could permanently damage the structure. Airbnb was forced to cancel this iteration of the “Night At” campaign. The backlash serves as a clear reminder that taking cultural context and sensitivities into account must be a top priority in any marketing campaign.


While marketing campaigns are designed to drum up attention, they don’t always garner the kind of attention originally intended. In New York City, Rich Tu quickly learned that lesson after spending 24 hours in jail following a late-night attempt to gain 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 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.

Cartoon Network

As Cartoon Network learned in 2007, 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.

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.


Going bigger isn’t always better, as Snapple learned 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.


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 LA 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 feared 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, Los Angeles 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.

An unfortunate incident occurred at the restaurant, where diners are given surgical gowns as they choose from a menu offering “Bypass burgers,” “Flatliner fries,” and buttermilk shakes.

In February 2012, a 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.”

Hoping for a less disastrous marketing campaign? Some of the best tips for creating a great marketing plan include crafting an executive summary, identifying your target market and pinpointing competitors that target your customers.


Vodafone, a business phone system provider, has tried and failed to join 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. Without approval or buy-in from the CEO, someone in the Vodafone New Zealand marketing department 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 negatively affected 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 placing 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 and received 20,000 website hits because of the signs.

Do’s and don’ts for guerilla marketing

Just because the above companies weren’t successful at guerilla marketing doesn’t mean your campaign won’t yield positive results. Consider the following do’s and don’ts for pulling off a great guerilla marketing campaign.

Do’s for guerilla marketing

Here are some tips for creating a successful guerilla marketing campaign:

  • Do your target audience homework. Understanding who you’re marketing to is essential to avoiding the mistakes of companies like Airbnb and Vodafone. Conduct thorough research on your target customer so you understand which strategies will get their attention and have a positive impact.
  • Do your legal due diligence. While preparing for your guerilla campaign, your research should include confirming that your campaign won’t violate any laws. Double-check whether your campaign requires any special permits and stay in contact with local authorities where necessary.
  • Do keep your message focused. If you’ve decided on a guerilla campaign, what do you want your audience to take away from it? Be clear on your campaign objectives and what calls-to-action you hope spectators will follow after you reach them.
  • Do take notes for the future. All marketing campaigns offer learning opportunities, and guerilla marketing is no exception. Measure your results, get clear on what worked and what didn’t, and apply these lessons accordingly to your next campaign.

Don’ts for guerilla marketing

Here’s what to avoid so your campaign isn’t remembered for all the wrong reasons:

  • Don’t be offensive. This may seem obvious, but the above examples illustrate why paying attention to the details is crucial. Ensure your campaign is culturally appropriate and consider current events when planning it.
  • Don’t forget to have a backup plan. Contingency plans are essential, whether planning for bad weather for outdoor campaigns or thinking through all the ways your campaign might be misinterpreted. Thorough preparation is key to guerilla marketing success.
  • Don’t overspend. Budget friendliness is one of the top reasons guerilla marketing is so popular. Your campaign doesn’t need to break the bank to make a splash.
  • Don’t be overtly salesy. If your campaign is meant to be authentic, engagement must be organic. The point is to create a concept that draws in your target audience, not one that forces people to interact when they’re not interested.

Learn from the mistakes of the guerilla marketers before you

Guerilla marketing campaigns have an impact. It’s up to you and your marketing team whether the impression you leave is good or bad. With the right strategies, you can reach your target audience in a way that powerfully resonates. But as demonstrated above, it’s all too easy to get guerilla marketing wrong — leaving a bad taste for all involved.

Sean Peek contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Natalie Hamingson
Written By: Natalie HamingsonBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Natalie Hamingson has spent more than 15 years researching and studying print and digital communications with a recent focus on business operations. She has hands-on experience with a range of software tools, from Salesforce to Buffer, and has also worked with data entry systems and accounting administration. Hamingson is adept at managing contact and financial data, conveying high-level concepts to a variety of clients and targeting different audiences through various mediums (email campaigns, longform writing, etc.). With a bachelor's degree from UCLA in communications studies, she excels at helping small business owners by providing counsel on website and social media content, marketing strategies, product descriptions and tools for accounting, payroll and sales.
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