The art of self publicity: A gamble on celebrity

Outrageous online purchases - from toast resembling the Virgin Mary to the Pope's car and Marilyn's 'black book' - have made GoldenPalace a global brand. By David Usborne
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The Independent US

It is Tuesday morning and here is one bet you can make with confidence. By the day's end, the online casino outfit that calls itself goldenpalace.com will have executed a publicity stunt of dubious worth to the human race with the sole intent - nearly always successfully achieved - of getting the attention of a headline writer somewhere.

It is Tuesday morning and here is one bet you can make with confidence. By the day's end, the online casino outfit that calls itself goldenpalace.com will have executed a publicity stunt of dubious worth to the human race with the sole intent - nearly always successfully achieved - of getting the attention of a headline writer somewhere.

You don't have to inhabit the cyber-world of online gambling to have heard of this company that is run out of Canada but with a headquarters address in the Caribbean. For years now, it has led the planet in outrageous marketing ploys that most recently included purchasing a pregnancy test kit used by Britney Spears. It also claims to be number one among online gambling operations, even if evidence to support that is hard to find.

For a while, guerrilla marketing was the talent of the folks at GoldenPalace.com, usually involving the dispatch of streakers or nearly-nude nutcases to high profile events with the company's web address tattooed on bare skin. A stitchless gent trotted across the field at the US Super Bowl in 2004, the same year a Canadian guy plunged into a pool at the Athens Olympics, disrupting a synchronised swimming event. Bare parts aside, all that the startled spectators could remember afterwards was the company's name.

Perhaps discerning that the joke of guerrilla marketing was wearing thin, the company has changed tack. It is keeping itself in the news by buying oddities at online auctions. The only requirement is the purchases tickle the interest of the media. (And look, here I am writing about GoldenPalace and here you are reading about it.)

That is why it is the proud owner of the testing kit. "It's hard to put a price on Britney Spears' urine," said company spokesman, Drew Black, after announcing the acquisition last month.

But, first, back to today and advance warning of an item that may be on your evening news. A Pennsylvania woman will be delivering, by Caesarean section, a baby boy this morning to be called Devon. In a deal with goldenpalace, Devon's wardrobe for the month of July will be entirely supplied by the company. Devon, in other words, will be gurgling, burping - but neither walking nor talking - billboard for the company website.

And you may hear this boast about the Devon deal from the company CEO, Richard Rowe. "I think we are redefining the nature of sponsorship, branding and advertising in general. We are breaking new ground every day, it seems, and I think it is very possible there will be a chapter on GoldenPalace.com in students' marketing textbook someday."

Just how successful these ploys are is hard to discern. But the company claims to have been profitable since the first year of operation in 1997. It reports its Super Bowl stunt - the same occasion that saw Janet Jackson let slip a nipple - triggered an instant 380 per cent hike in traffic on its site. It also says - although none of this is easy to prove - that it is achieving growth in revenues of 5 per cent each year.

In truth, the transaction with the Pennsylvania mother - she has so far received $999 (£550) from the company to pay for clothes - is a relatively tame one. (Although it has already generated media interest as far away as in South Africa.) It surely pales next to investing in the pregnancy test, which, by the way, was scavenged by a fan from a dustbin outside of a Canada hotel where Ms Spears was recently a guest.

A company spokesman has since admitted he cannot be 100 per cent certain it was the kit used by the singer, but never mind such pesky details.

And, last weekend, the company made another acquisition that may seem almost main- stream. Its representatives attended an auction of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia in Los Angeles and snagged the entertainment icon's old leather-bound address and telephone book, featuring entries for famous names ranging from Frank Sinatra to Joe DiMaggio.

In a sense, the company, in its cyberspace setting, is mimicking a long-hold tradition of bricks-and-mortar casinos on the Las Vegas strip. Forever, they have crammed their resorts with wow-factor oddities just to bring the punters onto their floors.

The MGM Grand has lions and the Mirage white tigers, not to mention an ersatz volcano in its driveway. The Paris has a scaled down Eiffel Tower and the Golden Nugget has, well, an oversized nugget of gold. The only difference, of course, is that GoldenPalace has nowhere to display these things, although it advertises plans to put some of its most prized items on tour.

Allegedly, a good number will also shortly be fired into space, aboard a privately funded manned space rocket partly sponsored by the casino. To be orbiting the sky above your home one day soon will be a cabbage patch doll in the likeness of Ellen DeGeneres, a pair of shoes once owned by Celine Dion and the football that David Beckham ballooned over the bar in England's penalty nightmare in Portugal in Euro 2004.

Maybe Marilyn's phone book will join these items on a space odyssey, but the company hasn't let on about plans for it yet.

Some of the company's purchases also have an altruistic or charitable side. Recently, it bought a plate that allegedly went down with the Titanic for $10,000, which, we were informed, was put for sale on the eBay auction site by a man who was homeless. On another occasion, it bought some Nintendo PlayStation systems from a Texas man who said his children, for whom they were originally destined, had been too naughty to deserve them and that the proceeds would go to local needy families.

That gesture may have been good for a few news stories in Texas. But other purchases by the company garnered global attention. Last month, it paid $245,000 for a six-year-old Volkswagen Golf from a man in southern Germany. Only one thing could explain such an exorbitant price and GoldenPalace.com's interest in the worn out vehicle - it was once driven by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Pope.

Ratzinger, Dion, Monroe, even Spears - all of these things you can understand. But a 10-year-old cheese sandwich? Which brings us to what may be the other genius stroke of the marketing department of goldenpalace.com. If it pays ridiculous amounts of money for really, really silly items (most of the originally offered either on eBay or on the classified listings site craigslist.com) that guarantees coverage.

The company may have hit a promotion grand-slam at the end of last year when it paid $28,000 for a partly-eaten grilled cheese sandwich put up for sale on eBay by a woman, who suddenly noticed what appeared to be the likeness of the Virgin Mary on the toast. More miraculously, she kept the discarded snack for 10 years before deciding to sell it and nary a speck of mould ever appeared on it.

Encouraged by the reaction to the grilled cheese acquisition, just last week the company revealed a new acquisition for its burgeoning biblical food collection. Again through eBay, it bid $10,600 for a pretzel that is allegedly shaped like the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.

That, of course, was terribly good news for Machell Naylor of St Paul, Nebraska, who scooped the mishaped pretzel from a bag that cost her $3.29 in the supermarket, just before her daughter, Crysta, was about to eat it. Best of all, goldenpalace.com sweetened the deal by giving Crysta a horse as an extra gift.

The sandwich episode alone may prove the point. Not only did it earn mentions on news bulletins, it even started popping up in popular television dramas in the US, such as CSI. Black, the company spokesman argued: "I think the media value for that is close to the millions."

There is no saying he is wrong. The casino closed 2004 by spending $100,000 on online auction purchases just in the month of December. Other items recently added to the casino's closet of the wild, wacky and downright tasteless include the following: the breast implant of a former Playboy cover girl featured in a trial in which the defendant complained of whiplash after having his head thrust into said breast; an oversized lemon for $29.99; a $156 jumbo Frosted Flake; a $1,350 toy army, and, for an easy $31, a "scientifical ghostificerator", whatever that may be.

Critical, of course, is the willingness of the public to play along with it. If money is promised, there is little punters will not now attempt to flog on eBay and other auction sites in the hope of catching the casino's attention.

Thus, it recently spent $65,000 on a walking stick the seller claimed contained the ghost of a dead grandfather. Meanwhile, a Connecticut woman has sold the company her new baby's name. That is to say, the unsuspecting child has been named GoldenPalace.com. Her parents say they call her Goldie for short. Thank goodness.

If the company ever goes out of business, one thing we cannot rely on is its name ever disappearing, whatever you think about it. Because the company has also purchased the right to puts its name to a recently discovered species of monkey in South America. Yes, we now have the GoldenPalace.com monkey. And the casino will thus be represented on our planet for ever.

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