October 11, 2023
The Delicate Balance of PR Stunts: Considerations for Marketing Masterminds
Everyone is talking about Taylor Swift. And for once, it’s happening outside our group chat.
The subject of the whispers could (and should) be the caliber of her songwriting or how the Eras Tour singlehandedly saved the global economy (OK, perhaps that’s a stretch), but what the masses are actually talking about is whether or not her latest relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is real or simply a PR stunt designed to elevate both parties, not to mention the NFL.
Keep reading – this is not another think piece about Traylor and the alleged fauxmance.
This is a piece about PR stunts: what they are, when to employ them and when the risk may not be worth the reward.
Publicity stunts have been around since P.T. Barnum first uttered, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and duping the public to get people talking has been customary in Hollywood for a century (for more on this, take a look at this illuminating roundup from Vulture). Orchestrated romantic relationships are among the most commonplace, but hardly the only fake-outs brands might employ.
In 1996, Taco Bell famously fooled consumers into believing it had purchased and renamed the Liberty Bell, resulting in an estimated $25 million in advertising value on a campaign that cost the brand only $300,000. And in 2018, a Bitcoin mining company risked negative publicity to stage a protest at a major New York blockchain conference. When questioned, Genesis Mining admitted that its motivation was to bring more attention to cryptocurrency so consumers would invest early.
PR stunts are ubiquitous for good reason. When used effectively, the bait-and-switch technique has a few pros:
Growth potential – The biggest benefit to a PR stunt is the increased brand exposure it can create – especially from new consumer segments. After Taylor Swift’s appearance at the Sept. 24 Chiefs game, StubHub reported a 300% increase over a 24-hour period in sales for Kansas City home games, and Kelce’s Instagram following grew 400% seemingly overnight. A broader audience means both paid and earned efforts work harder.
Loyalty – While gaining new audiences is important, brands must also cater to their loyal fanbase. A PR stunt can be a great way for loyal consumers to double down on their engagement with the brand. There are few things people love more than saying, “I liked them before they were cool,” so crafting a stunt that will not only inspire new viewers but will resonate with brand loyalists is key.
But pranks like these are not without their risks. History is riddled with stunts gone wrong, and the consequences can be severe. Who could forget Janet Jackson’s unfortunate exposure during her Super Bowl performance with Justin Timberlake in 2004? The incident got so much attention the term “wardrobe malfunction” remains in the public lexicon to this day. But Jackson was subsequently banned from the Grammys, and Timberlake faced blowback years later during the #MeToo movement.
In 2006, Sony created a fake fan site loaded with positive reviews in order to boost sales of its PlayStation Portable before Christmas. It didn’t take internet sleuths long to figure out that the site was registered to a viral marketing agency, and the campaign was promptly quashed.
Public scandals aside, stunts gone wrong can have some additional downsides:
Oversaturation – From the NFL to ranch dressing, brands across the nation have looked to capitalize on the country’s uniting moment between die-hard sports fans and Swifties, two of the most coveted demographics in advertising. But have they gone too far? Many people think so and have flipped from finding brands’ efforts clever to calling them “desperate” or “thirsty.” Even the man of the moment, Travis Kelce – who has everything to gain from this media moment – says the NFL is “overdoing it.”
Mistrust – Brands must be careful not to bend the truth or do something that compromises their core values or mission all for the sake of publicity. Like the boy who cried wolf, a brand can only employ these attention-grabbing techniques for so long before losing its luster. Once consumers’ trust is broken it is exceedingly difficult to get back, so brands must carefully weigh their willingness to be the anti-hero when the stunt is inevitably uncovered.
And since you asked… Though only time will tell, the Taylor-Travis romance doesn’t feel like a stunt to us. Neither Swift nor Kelce – both performing at the peak of their careers – stand to gain much from staging their fledgling romance. Still, if either party finds themselves in need of public relations support in the coming weeks, our inboxes are always open.