Forget PT Barnum: How to Stay Ethical and Create Publicity Stunts that Make a Splash

Nov 14, 2019

Stirling Grodner, Social Media Coordinator @KPItarget

The publicity stunt is as old as business itself. While it may have had a negative connotation for years, the time-honored tactic is getting new life in today’s digital age. Some may view the publicity stunt as an outlandish act with no value other than shock value, leveraged to trick the public into consuming a product, but when used properly (and with integrity!), it can delight customers and have a positive impact on brand awareness and bottom line. 

“Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.” — PT Barnum

We often associate the publicity stunt with a sometimes less than ethical marketing genius: PT Barnum. In addition to stunts, PT Barnum invented the modern media tour and publicist, so his tactics have certainly endured, but they also have been refined and developed over time. We should think of the publicity stunt the same way. Despite its sometimes dodgy beginnings, it has evolved to be useful in modern marketing. 

The publicity stunt has been given new life in the age of the internet. A post, event, or video can go viral in hours, bringing exponential brand awareness; a simple idea that’s already accounted for in the marketing budget can bring a manyfold ROI. 

As the marketplace becomes more and more saturated with brands competing for limited attention, brands chase that secret formula, trying to outdo one another with creative ideas. The culture of the internet has also developed its own unique perspective and sense of humor that has permeated culture as a whole, making audiences receptive to and interested in somewhat outlandish and playful content and ideas, even from brands. 

So how do you leverage the potential of the publicity stunt without the unsavory connotations of yore?


Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Align with company values and brand voice first and foremost. A publicity stunt shouldn’t seem random; it should fit perfectly with what your brand already stands for. Target your idea toward the brand’s audience, whether as a whole, or a particular segmented persona. 

One example of a company that executes this well is Red Bull. Red Bull has long promoted adventure sports and music festivals, creating a clear picture of adventurous branding, but they took it to the next level with the Stratos space jump stunt. The stunt fit perfectly with their adventurous branding and even literally with their tagline “Red Bull gives you wings.” 

In addition to breaking scientific records, with 8 million live views and now logging 52 million web views, it was the most watched YouTube live stream at the time it aired. In the six months immediately following Stratos, sales rose 7% to $1.6 billion in the US, and in the following year, sales in the US rose 17% over the previous year, and 13% worldwide, for a total of 5.2 billion sales. 

If appropriate, align your stunt with a relevant cause, just make sure the cause applies directly to your brand values and the stunt itself, so as not to seem to be pandering. Two-thirds of consumers report that their opinion of a brand is positively impacted by their association with a social cause, but these numbers drop dramatically if this alignment seems forced or phony. Red Bull insists that its primary objective in the Stratos jump was scientific, which added to the event’s success. 

Accept that virality is random, so produce something that you will be proud of and that aligns with your brand even if it doesn’t ultimately get 53.9 million likes. 

Campaign Objectives

Don’t get caught up in the next shiny thing or wacky idea. Instead, treat a publicity stunt like any other marketing campaign. Every campaign, event, and indeed, publicity stunt should support overall business objectives. No matter how outlandish an idea, be sure it is mapped out according to S.M.A.R.T. objectives. 

What is the purpose of the stunt within the context of a larger campaign? What are the business objectives that the campaign is serving? How does this stunt serve the campaign, specifically? How will you measure success? Are the objectives projected from this stunt attainable, and in what amount of time are you measuring results? 

Decide these objectives in the early stages of crafting, as you would with any campaign, to be sure your imagination doesn’t run away with you. 


Now that you’re sure your ideas are aligned with brand and business objectives, it’s time to get tactical. Will your publicity stunt be an event, a video, a social media post, or digital campaign? 

Experiential marketing is a powerful tactic in an increasingly digital world; consumers value experiences when so much of their lives are on a screen. With brands competing for attention, unique experiences are tactile and can make a campaign and brand really stand out. Will you host your own event, provide a memorable branded experience at an event that your target audience will attend, create a collaborative pop-up activation? 

If your brand doesn’t have the budget for a fully produced event, or even if you do, and that isn’t the best idea for your objective, the possibilities for a digital experience are endless. A well executed video or even a series of social posts can resonate with audiences in an impactful way, especially if they have some element or delight or surprise to set them apart. 

Of course, many successful ideas will be some combination of multiple types, amplifying the experience across multiple channels. 

Plan the Channels

Part of what makes publicity stunts so effective in marketing today is that ability to amplify them past a single event. Will there be a countdown on your social channels or will the event be a surprise? Will you provide incentives for early adopters to get involved in advance? What social channels will you use for your publicity stunt? 

Different platforms have distinctly different vibes, and while something truly impactful will transcend its original placement, having the unique voices and audiences on the target platform(s) in mind will help develop an idea that will resonate. 

Will you livestream the event on social pages or on a special landing page created for the event? If it’s an in-person event with attendees, what can you offer people to add to their experience? Is there an opportunity to win prizes? Surprises for those in attendance?

Once the stunt has been successfully pulled off, the next step is to continue to amplify its effect afterwards. Keep the potential for ongoing promotion in mind during the stunt in order to gather assets to promote and repurpose, such as pictures and videos from an event, testimonials from customers, even online feedback. This way, a publicity stunt can have a longer shelf life and continue to generate interest. 


Much has been made of the rise of influencers in today’s social media and marketing climate, and to be sure the market and diversity of influencers has exploded. No longer are celebrities and athletes the only people who influence taste, now your neighbor’s cooking blog or personal trainer’s Instagram could be influencers. 

Payless recently executed a publicity stunt working with influencers, somewhat unwittingly! The brand invited fashion influencers in LA to a pop-up shop called Palessi, where fashionistas believed they were getting first dibs on a luxury shopping experience. Picking their favorite styles, they piled into the checkout line, paying 1,800% markup for their finds. 

The reality? All of the styles were actually Payless shoes, not only publicizing the brand, but making a salient point about the price discrepancies in the accessories market as a whole. The playful prank naturally garnered plenty of attention! (And don’t worry, all those involved got their money back and got to keep the shoes.)

Even if they are in on the stunt, working with influencers may amplify and add to a campaign. The questions to ask yourself here are the same as above, and indeed with any campaign. Is their participation in your campaign authentic and relevant? Does it make sense in the context of the stunt and contribute to larger business objectives? 

Be Prepared

There’s no way to predict the success and potential virality of an idea, but it’s important to prepare for every outcome. 

Popeye’s hoped their new chicken sandwich would gain popularity, and planned playful organic social posts to support the release, but they had no idea that Twitter users would make it go viral. Generating an estimated $65 million in earned media, the company ran out of the sandwiches nationwide in only 15 days. This brought a whole new wave of publicity, for the fumbled planning, and of course, halted sales until they were able to re-supply. 

Plot out all the potential marketing and business needs, for any outcome of your stunt, so you’re prepared for anything. Be sure the social media team and community manager is ready to handle a potential onslaught of viral traffic, with general sentiment, brand voice and potential conversations ple-planned, even if the individual posts can’t be. 

Have Fun!

Creative ideas have the biggest impact; as long as your idea serves business objectives, fits brand values, and targets your audience, the possibilities are endless!

If you’d like to chat more about leveraging publicity stunts in marketing, please contact me: