Ian Burrell: We hear you Paddy Power, and it's the sound of silly stunts

We always need to be saying something, there needs to be a point

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A Twitter storm, crackling with shock and outrage, is the recurring nightmare of most brand managers but not at Paddy Power, where such an outpouring on social media is highly-coveted and a source of pride, not to say amusement.

It’s a listed company that does around half of its business online and yet it has no compunction in risking the wrath of those communities with elaborate deceits and jokes at the expense of anyone from little old ladies, to crossdressers, the disabled, the Vatican and the Amazon rainforest.

Its technique might be in the finest attention-seeking traditions of Barnum & Bailey but it breaks every rule in the book of conventional corporate PR.

How does Paddy Power get away with it?

The company’s blog recently compiled its “Cunning Stunts” list of “16 of Paddy Power’s greatest controversies”.

It was headed by Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner’s goal celebration in his lucky green Paddy Power underpants in the last European Championships. When Bendtner was fined £80,000, the bookie picked up the tab. The list included some of the most-complained-about content in recent British advertising; 2010’s TV campaign featuring a cat being kicked into a tree by a blind footballer; 2002’s “Let’s make things more interesting” posters, which matched odds to decrepit old ladies crossing the road ahead of a looming 4x4.

Step inside Paddy Power’s offices near London’s Euston station and the props of previous stunts furnish the corridors. A statue of Sir Alex Ferguson in a glass box, placed outside Old Trafford in the dark days of David Moyes’s management, carries a message to Manchester United fans: “In case of emergency break glass.” 

Paddy Power even has a “mischief champion”, Harry Dromey, to mastermind stunts to generate maximum publicity. He considers himself “lucky” to have a job in which “you’re limited only by your own imagination”.

Since he joined in July last year, Paddy Power has pushed even further at the boundaries of taste. An advert on the Oscar Pistorius trial offering a “money back if he walks” guarantee provoked a British record 5,525 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. He persuaded Nigel Farage to gush about the wonders of Europe in a Ryder Cup campaign. Two Paddy Power interns gate-crashed the Brit Awards, disguised in helmets as French electronic duo Daft Punk, before posing on the red carpet in their branded green pants.

He is the son of Trade Union leader Jack Dromey and the Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, who last week demonstrated her own instinct for a publicity stunt when she hijacked Prime Minister’s Questions by wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like”.

Dromey, 31, previously worked in advertising on Procter & Gamble and McDonald’s accounts. He wants Paddy Power to avoid “mid-90s lads’ culture” of girls and beer on the grounds that “you look like a dusty old brand”. He says: “You need to pull off difficult things for people to go, ‘Wow, that’s impressive!’”

At the Brazil World Cup, Dromey and his colleagues lured sections of the Twitterati into outrage over an image, made with Modo software, appearing to show that the bookmaker had hacked the rainforest to create the slogan “C’mon England PP”.

Dromey plans stunts months in advance. He allied with Brazilian environmentalists who wrote in Portuguese about this defacing of the forest. References were planted on the dark internet. “If you start enough fires, nobody is able to trace where the story emanated from.” A photo of the apparently defaced forest – seemingly taken from a helicopter – was leaked to UK website Sabotage Times, which was in on the ruse.

It broke on the Friday evening before the World Cup kicked off. “The objective in the first 48 hours was [to] receive as much abuse as possible. Objective number one was ‘We need massive scorn and hatred.’ It made for an interesting weekend,” says Dromey.

Twitter took the bait and Paddy Power was soon trending on the fury. Some demanded sackings. Others hoped Paddy Power staff caught infectious diseases. The bookie tweeted back: “We haven’t cut down that much!”

The wind-up reached its apex when actor Dominic Monaghan, a hobbit in The Lord of the Rings, denounced Paddy Power as “irresponsible completely out of touch stupid brainless w***ers”. It was the oxygen of publicity Paddy Power had craved. Gleefully it responded: “I think we might have made a mistake leaving the shire, Pippin.”

It is careful not to deceive journalists, on whom it depends for coverage. “If you bluff them they will have their payback,” warns Dromey.

The reveal came on Sunday lunchtime. A similarly doctored image spelt out: “We didn’t give the Amazon a Brazilian”, with an appeal for donations to Greenpeace. The bookie “went from negative trending to positive trending” in two days.

Dromey seems to have no regrets over the controversies. The worst campaigns, he says, are “damp squibs”, such as a pre-Ashes image of England’s Alastair Cook, projected onto the Oval with the slogan “Captain Cook: civilising the Aussies since 1770”. It generated one complaint. The gag was “tired” and “every Tom, Dick and Harry does projections these days”.

He will address the Festival of Marketing on 12 and 13 November at London’s Tobacco Dock, and while he acknowledges that Paddy Power’s approach “isn’t for every brand”, many businesses can learn from its methods for starting online conversations.

“We always need to be saying something, there needs to be a narrative or a point we are making,” he says. “It’s not just nihilistic randomness because I don’t think that’s funny or clever.”

The mischievous Paddy Power is both those things.