Anyone running a small business knows that one of the most difficult challenges is effective publicity. If people don't know the business exists, they won't walk through the doors—and a business location, staff and start-up capital become irrelevant points.
Publicity can be acquired with billboard space or TV commercials, but many small businesses just don't have that kind of money. For mom and pops, a little creativity and a flair for the theatrical can go a long way. In short, they need to rely on good old-fashioned, attention-grabbing publicity stunts.
Some businesses have seen stunts become catalysts that take them to the next level. Others see efforts fizzle out, and in some cases turn into horrific disasters. But while there's no guarantee a publicity stunt will accomplish what it's designed to do, many businesses take that route anyway, always hoping for the best.
Here's a list of businesses that engaged in noteworthy plays for the public's attention. Some of these businesses used promotions that exceeded expectations. Other businesses made headlines and were soon forgotten, and others were unmitigated calamities. But whatever the case, all these businesses deserve credit for trying to do something a little different.
Read ahead to see our list of outrageous publicity stunts engaged in by small businesses over the years.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Updated 06 June 2013
Every January, select New Yorkers brave the elements to participate in the No Pants Subway Ride, an event staged by the Improv Everywhere prank collective. Participants board the subway in the middle of winter sans pants, to the great amusement of surprised onlookers.
This event presented the hair removal salon Shobha with a unique opportunity to publicize their service. In January, The Manhattan-based salon sent a team of pants-free participants to the event in underwear proudly bearing the Shobha name.
Many small businesses promote their services with prizes and giveaways. Dating services are no exception, including Gotham Dating Partners, which offers a unique promotional item to new clients purchasing an annual membership—a handgun.
"We direct them to online sites and pay for the purchase," Gotham Dating Partners CEO Aaron Fraser said in an e-mail. While clients are required to pass background checks in order to be eligible for weapons, the site proudly matches gun enthusiasts.
Rotterdam tattoo artist Dex Moelker caused a stir in 2011, when she gave a client a unique tattoo. The client got the profile pictures of all 152 of her Facebook friends tattooed on her right arm, a process documented in a YouTube video that went viral.
Disappointingly, it was revealed by the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf to be nothing more than a temporary tattoo. "It is a try out tattoo, a transfer that washes off in a couple of days," Moelker told the Telegraaf. However, the video has been viewed more than 3.7 million times and is linked to from Moekler's website, a testament to its publicity value two years after the fact.
One of the most profitable movies ever made is 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," which had a production budget of $60,000 and a worldwide box office take of over $248 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The film was a fictional account of three film students' experience investigating a centuries-old tale about a witch.
"The film was intended to be a fake documentary," co-director Daniel Myrick told Entertainment Weekly. The movie was publicized a year in advance by its website, which featured faked police reports and staged interviews with ornery townsfolk. The advance publicity fueled a widespread public perception and confusion that the film was comprised of real footage, which only led both horror fans and curiosity-seekers to purchase tickets in droves.
Cashtomato.com was a short-lived Internet video site whose founder allegedly intended that it compete with YouTube. A tall order, and one that was addressed in a 2008 publicity stunt. It involved dressing up three representatives as tomatoes and having them distribute $4,000 in cash to a packed mid-afternoon crowd in Manhattan's Union Square. What could go wrong?
The representatives were besieged by a seething mob of 100 people, who grabbed at the cash, injuring someone in the process, according to the New York Daily News. Ultimately, the publicity stunt did not have the desired effect, and the Cashtomato.com domain name is available for purchase today.
The German publishing house Eichborn Verlag performed an attention-getting stunt at the 2009 Frankfurt Bookfair. Their logo features a housefly, and the company harnessed the power of the insect by attaching promotional banners to real live ones and letting them loose in the venue.
A video of the publicity event can be seen on YouTube. Witness the looks of simultaneous delight and irritation among attendees.
LifeLock is an identity theft prevention company that used an audacious tactic to publicize its services in 2007. It ran television commercials in which CEO Todd Davis disclosed his real social security number, a dare to identity thieves to try their luck against the company.
One year later, ABC News reported that criminals did exactly that by taking out a $500 payday loan in the CEO's name. It wasn't the only time either. In 2010, the Phoenix New Times reported that his identity had been stolen a whopping 13 times.
Half.com is an online seller of new and used goods founded in 1999 and purchased in 2000 by eBay. Unlike its parent company, Half.com is not the place to outbid others for rare collectibles, but rather a place to buy goods outright at fixed prices.
In order to attract attention during its pre-eBay days, the company paid the city of Halfway, Ore. $100,000 to change its name to Half.com for one year. It also donated 20 new computers to the city to sweeten the deal for its 362 citizens.
Syracuse, N.Y. is home to an ice hockey team known as The Crunch. In December 2011, the team offered a spot on their roster to NBA player Kris Humphries, who is perhaps best known as the man who was Kim Kardashian's husband for all of 72 days.
As a tribute to Humphries' recently collapsed nuptials, the team offered fans the chance to buy six tickets for $72, and Syracuse Crunch General Manager Vance Lederman made a statement on the team's official website to make the athlete feel welcome. "Being from Minnesota, Humphries will surely enjoy the hockey and feel right at home in the cold, gray, dismal weather we experience this time of year in Central New York," he said.
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