We could say that public relations dates back millennia — or at least the concept of informing and persuading the public and creating publicity does. If you think about it, the pyramids in Egypt were actually just a really large-scale publicity stunt. Pharaohs created these pyramids in order to promote their divine right to lead the state.
One of the first recorded publicity stunts dates back to 1896, when William Crush, owner of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, wanted to publicize his company. He invited people to ride the train and view a staged crash of two full-size trains, all for free. Unfortunately, a few people were killed when the boilers exploded, but it did draw 40,000 people, which is pretty impressive for 19th-century tactics.
Now that we’re in the 21st century, reaching 40,000 is standard and expected for any large-scale campaigns. The goal is virality — reaching millions and millions of people through sharing on the web. Since brands have been raising the bar, what are some of the most memorable viral campaigns?
Best Job in the World
The tourism board of Queensland in Australia launched one of the most successful tourism campaigns in order to promote their region around the Great Barrier Reef. They were offering £70,000 pounds and the chance to be an island caretaker, essentially island sitting and exploring Queensland. It was called The Best Job in the World and involved living in a three-bedroom villa with a pool on Hamilton Island. In the end the tourism board received 35,000 applications and over $20 million in global publicity — a definite return on investment.
The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
This Old Spice campaign hardly needs an introduction and it has since become the gold standard of viral advertising. I actually looked forward to seeing these ads on television, just to see what Old Spice would come up with next.
The brand took viral marketing to the next level by essentially live responding to viewers’ questions on Twitter with short YouTube videos, resulting in nearly 200 personalized videos. The numbers speak for themselves: 105 million YouTube views, 1.2 billion media impressions, a 2700% increase in Twitter followers, and a 300% increase in traffic to the Old Spice home page. Enough said.
Setting a World Record for Breast Cancer
For the 11th anniversary of Estée Lauder Companies' "Global Landmark Illuminations Initiative," they wanted to create an unforgettable and high-profile event that would gain worldwide interest. They partnered with Guinness World Records for a PR stunt that involved creating a new record category: Most Landmarks Illuminated in 24 hours. In the end, 38 landmarks were illuminated, including iconic buildings like Dubai’s Burj Al Arab and the Taj Mahal Hotel in India. This PR stunt attained over 6 million media impressions alone.
"Carrie" Coffeeshop Prank
Ever since I saw the film "Matilda," I’ve always wished I could have telekinesis. But what if it were real? The Huffington Post billed the viral video for the 2013 remake of Carrie as "brilliant marketing." By combining actors and Hollywood special effects, they created an unforgettable experience for patrons in the coffee shop. They caught it on camera and the video was immediately shared around. The video now has over 54 million views on YouTube.
The Epic Split
What happens when you combine Jean Claude Van Damme and a pair of Volvo trucks? 71 million views and $170 million in revenue. Almost as soon as this video was released it was flooding Facebook feeds and being covered on all major news publications. Shortly thereafter, marketing and advertising blogs were talking about it, too. A simple concept, a difficult stunt, and flawless filmmaking made this another piece of advertising that will go down in history. The video also garnered plenty of spoofs, which meant even more earned media for Volvo.