Publicity stunts fight for space

On Tuesday, as dawn breaks over London, early risers passing through Trafalgar Square will notice that an Unidentified Flying Object has crash-landed into the ground. This being the capital, some commuters will simply avert their gaze, step round the 25-foot-wide spaceship and forget all about it. Others, though, may feel they are having a paranormal experience.

If so, they should be warned that this will be a close encounter of the propaganda kind. The UFO is a mere replica. There will be no Martians on board, just the more down-to-earth message that a food company is launching a new product. The brand, it hopes, will stand out by being viewed as off the wall, original and fresh - just like the stunt used to promote it.

This is advertising, Jim - but not as we know it.

While the promotion may be ground-breaking, the British public has already had plenty of exposure to bizarre stunts. In the summer of 1998 Channel 5 acquired the rights to make a new series of Lassie, TV's Fifties canine heroine.

Despite Lassie's stirring deeds and ability to communicate long-winded warnings just by barking, an image makeover was now needed for the more showbiz-conscious Nineties. So after a Lassie lookalike had been selected (a male, as it happened), he was filmed stepping from a corporate jet wearing a pair of shades. From the airport, he checked in at the Waldorf, shopped at Harrods and then made a celebrity visit to Battersea Dogs' Home.

Both these promotions were dreamed up by the quaintly titled Cunning Stunts, whose name sums up its campaigns: make them attention-grabbing and memorable, and then get the media in to film them. Cunning Stunts has been going for just over a year but its managing director, Anna Carloss, says the demand for its services reflects a "gap in the market".

The niche, she explains, is building awareness of a brand in a congested market where thousands of products are screaming for consumers' attention. The solution is to shout even louder, while saying something different.

The company's most celebrated stunt was carried out in May when it was hired by the men's magazine FHM to publicise an annual readers' poll for the world's 100 sexiest women. Ms Carloss says that because the media can't always be relied on to turn up, it is important that promotions can be viewed as coherent advertisements in their own right. So Cunning Stunts' decided to take one of the girls featured in an FHM photo-shoot and marry the picture with the idea of voting. The result: a nude image of the TV presenter Gail Porter projected at night across the Houses of Parliament.

Such risque promotions may seem like a product of the Nineties but, as a new Radio 4 series called Stunts explains, they have been around most of the century. Even in the Fifties, for example, Guinness was pushing at the boundaries of mainstream advertising while wondering how to build a global identity.

Its solution was to drop 200,000 bottles of Guinness Export into the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and hope that beachcombers around the world would find them and spread the word.

Unfortunately, this bold initiative backfired. Worried that dumping bottles at sea might offend the environmental lobby, Guinness claimed it was simply an exercise in making sure the seals were watertight.

Pepsi-Cola also found itself dogged by controversy when it launched the biggest-ever commercial publicity stunt to publicise its change in colour to electric blue. In April 1996, at the start of a three-year promotional campaign, costing around pounds 330m, Pepsi paid The Mirror to print on blue paper, arranged for an Air France Concorde to be painted blue, and got the cosmonauts on board Russia's Mir space station to pose with a giant inflatable Pepsi can.

The space-age project soon got bogged down in more earthly rivalries. Perhaps motivated by Pepsi's choice of sponsorship, The Sun newspaper claimed the promotion had not boosted sales. Other papers reported - wrongly, according to Pepsi - that the 300 litres of blue paint applied to the Concorde had stopped it from going supersonic. Meanwhile, as Mir orbited the earth, Nasa's Endeavour space shuttle blasted off carrying an experimental drinks dispenser - stocked with Coca-Cola.

A spokesman for Pepsi says the stunts have proved a huge success, and that its share of the UK cola market has risen from 15 per cent at the relaunch to 20.5 per cent today. But Pepsi's experiences do illustrate that the best-laid stunts can be compromised when other companies dilute the message.

For instance, while seeing itself as a space pioneer, Pepsi may not have been gratified to learn that no stunt is too ridiculous for the cash-strapped Russian Space Agency. That's why the hapless cosmonauts on Mir have also had to advertise Swiss watches, drink Israeli milk and wear German knickers.

None of this is to say that commercial publicity stunts need be a huge financial gamble. Ms Carloss says the promotions organised by Cunning Stunts have each cost under pounds 10,000 - a relatively small proportion of many corporate advertising budgets.

The problem is that there is no sure way of measuring their success. As Hamish Pringle, director of marketing strategy at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says, they form a small part of wide-ranging ad campaigns and their contribution is hard to quantify except in the amount of column inches generated. In those terms, he believes, campaigns like French Connection's "fcuk" succeed purely by being controversial.

That said, there is a question mark over the shelf life of stunts because nothing dulls the element of surprise like too many surprises. Thirty years ago, soap and detergent companies put characters such as the Fairy Snowman on suburban front doors to tempt housewives with cash prizes. After a while the stunts reached saturation point and thus was born Square Deal Surf - "no gifts, no gimmicks, just 18 per cent more powder".

There is also the danger consumers will become confused. Last week, Heineken unveiled a promotion to cash in on the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off next month. Fronting the launch was Julia Carling, ex-wife of the former England rugby captain, who has swapped one beer brand for another by agreeing to call herself Julia Heineken for the duration of the tournament.

While doubtless relieved she hasn't been hired by Oranjeboom, Ms Carling is precluded by ITC rules from using the name Heineken on her TV video show. For the purposes of the programme, therefore, she will be known as Julia H. Confused? You might be.

`Stunts' is being transmitted on Radio 4 at 9.30am every Thursday until 30 September.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
The Manchester United team walk out ahead of the pre-season friendly between Manchester United and Inter Milan at FedExField
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
media
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
News
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Client Services Associate (MS Office, Analysis, Graduate)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client Services Associate (Microsoft Office, Ana...

Graduate Data Operations Analyst (Graduate, Analysis, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate Data Operations Analyst (Graduate, Anal...

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013, SQL)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Dynamics...

Front-end Web Developer/Designer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3)

£4000 - £30000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-end...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz