Why Publicity Stunts Go Wrong So Easily

When planning a large-scale marketing push or publicity stunt, it can be easy to overlook the fact that getting attention is hard, and getting positive attention is even harder.

Actually managing to grab customers’ attention with whatever eye-popping experiment one is hoping to roll out is no small feat – particularly in an era when everyone and everything is trying to go viral and snag a few seconds of consumers' time. And getting a customer’s attention is no guarantee of achieving anything positive with it. One is just as likely to underwhelm with the attempt and leave consumers cold – or get consumers too overheated with something that sounds very exciting, only to leave them disappointed when the product doesn’t live up to the promotion.

It’s a tough needle to thread.

And the summer of 2018 has already featured two flashy mass-market promotions that aimed for it, missed and got to watch things go spectacularly awry. IHOP and Build-A-Bear managed to get customers' attention this summer – but not exactly in the ways they had hoped or planned.

And while it is easy to mock both on social media – and people have, in abundance – the fact of the matter is that most memorable publicity stunts in history aren’t the ones that went right, but the ones that went pretty wrong, and the history of promotion is littered with far more losers than winners.

So, how do misses – and the occasional hits – happen?

The International House of … Something?

IHOP, however the stunt eventually played out, does deserve some credit for managing to slow-roll its burger-based publicity stunt with a Friday afternoon announcement that it would be changing on Monday. They offered no further explanation at that time.

“For 60 pancakin’ years, we’ve been IHOP. Now, we’re flippin’ our name to IHOb. Find out what it could be on 6.11.18. #IHOb,” the brand mysteriously sent out over Twitter.

And while guesses varied – bagels, blintzes, belly-dancers, bitcoin, berries – the Twitter streams more or less correctly forecast the news that came down the pipes on July 11: the "b" stood for burgers.

IHOP – turned IHOb – had added a variety of new and exciting burgers to the mix, and in celebration of that news, they decided to flip the “P” in their name to a “b” – and insisted on being called the International House of Burgers forthwith.

The move was attention-getting. Unfortunately, it was mostly hated, with Twitter users calling it a “stupid marketing stunt,” a “reason not to eat at IHOP” and something that IHOP “literally cannot make me do.”

On the upside, IHOP’s competitors had a great deal of fun with the move.

Wendy's tweeted: "Not really afraid of the burgers from a place that decided pancakes were too hard." The went on to say, "Remember when you were like 7 and thought changing your name to Thunder BearSword would be super cool? Like that, but our cheeseburgers are still better."

Waffle House was a bit more discreet in its burn on IHOP: “Even though we serve delicious burgers … we know our roots."

White Castle, on the other hand, decided to embrace the madness: "We are excited to announce that we will be switching our name to Pancake Castle." Burger King decided to more fully embrace the madness, altering its name to reflect its new chosen designation: "Pancake King."

Netflix, which does not sell food at all, decided that after all the debate, it was time to ask a serious question about the nature of reality: "What is a burger if not a meat pancake between two other pancakes?” Deep thinkers on the Netflix social media team.

But after about a month of experimenting with a new identity, IHOP was IHOP again, professing that after 60 years in business, it just couldn't leave its beloved pancakes behind.

“We really appreciate the burgerin’ loyalty, but we’re back to @IHOP again,” the chain announced via Twitter. “We’d never turn our back on pancakes (except for that time we faked it to promote our new burgers).”

How much burgerin' loyalty IHOP really generated with the stunt we can’t judge, as they’ve released no data on it. The burgers received fine, if not outstanding, reviews – the consensus was that IHOP makes as good a burger as one can reasonably expect to get at a pancake restaurant.

But the stunt itself was somewhat distracting from IHOP’s more interesting rollout of the summer: its delivery partnership with DoorDash. The addition of delivery will now also be part of the IHOP ‘N Go mobile app, home to the brand’s order-ahead capability.

The DoorDash delivery addition will include 300 IHOP restaurants across the nation – a much bigger change for the chain than the temporary embracing of a newish name – and the addition of burgers to the menu.

But it was a change that got a fraction of the interest.

Then again, as Build-A-Bear proved last week, sometimes interest can be a dangerous thing.

Teddy Bear Fans Gone Wild

It might be hard to imagine how a company that specializes in customized teddy bears could manage to enrage a large swath of American parents – but then, we live in strange times. As it turns out, it is possible for a retailer to succeed so big they actually fail, a reality to which Build-A-Bear Workshop was introduced last week.

The concept for the promotion was pretty simple, and on the surface did not look like a recipe of disaster at malls across the nation. Consumers who signed up for the Build-A-Bear Workshops membership program (for free) would be given access to a special all-day event at store locations nationwide that would allow them to build the bear of their choice at the store – and pay only their child’s age.

Bears at the workshop range from $12-$65 depending on model, so the savings were pretty significant and attractive.

A little too attractive, as it turned out.

Long lines formed at stores nationwide – in some cases, two or three hours before stores were even open. Temperatures flared into the 90s at many mall locations, lines were estimated to be three and four hours long, and by midday the company was alerting people over Twitter that the event would have to be called off. Local safety officials reportedly demanded that crowds be dispersed, as crowding became an issue at locations everywhere.

And though Build-A-Bear did offer $15 vouchers to those left in line without a bear, the people were unhappy, and Twitter rang with their discontent.  And this wasn’t the cool apathy of the unimpressed – a la IHOP – this was the rage of a parent who had promised a child a teddy bear and then had no bear to give.

“@buildabear not being able to supply the demand on pay-your-age day is bad. making kids have to attend and being turned away at the door is disgusting,” one mother tweeted.

“Angry and fuming, we are working parents, my wife is having to drive 100 miles after work to get to a store to take up the offer, and now we have a 2-year-old in meltdown she’s not getting a bear, perhaps your MD wants to consul her,” wrote another.

Build-A-Bear CEO Sharon Price John appeared on the “Today” show after the debacle to apologize for the event.

“I am sorry that we were not able to provide the service that we wanted,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of big promotions in the past … so we’re used to crowds and managing that. But this really started winding up 24 to 48 hours prior to it. There was no way for us to estimate the kind of impact, those kinds of crowds. It far surpassed anything we ever could have known.”

But Build-A-Bear is now trying to make amends with a new promotion, hopefully one that will be more easily controlled. The company is offering customers the opportunity to purchase a Birthday Treat Bear for the same price as their age during their birthday month. The deal will be part of the Count Your Candles promotion that is available to members of the loyalty program — a program that, coincidentally, got a major bump in users last week, as members had to sign up to be part of last week’s Build-A-Bear promotion that went south.

The latest promotion will be limited to children aged 14 and younger, as the Birthday Treat Bear is normally priced at $14.

It’s not quite as good an offer as the pay-your-age promo – but on the upside, it is also less likely to cause safety-threatening crowds or scores of children weeping with disappointment.

More Misses Than Hits

While IHOP and Build-A-Bear have soaked in their share of scorn this summer, they are but the most recent entrants in a long and proud tradition of brands missing the mark with publicity stunts – and are far from the worst misses in history.

In fact, they probably don’t even make the list of the top three for the last decade or so.

For example, in 2007, TBS (parent company of the Cartoon Network) ended up paying a $2 million fine  when a promotional stunt for their Adult Swim line-up of nighttime animation accidently set off a bomb scare in the city of Boston.

As it turned out, six years after the 9-11 attacks was still too soon for viral marketers to plant unexplained electrical boxes that mysteriously lit up and made noise without giving public officials any heads up as to what they were doing. The devices were planted in several American cities, but in Boston they were mistaken as a plot to bomb bridges, roads and other infrastructure in Boston, Somerville and Cambridge.

Then there was last fall, when McDonald’s managed to set off an explosion of internet rage – not to mention one stabbing in real life – when their Szechuan Sauce promotion for fans of the television show Rick and Morty spiraled a bit out of control. McDonald’s – which later admitted it had underestimated interest and made “a very limited batch” – nearly saw riots in some of its parking lots when supplies ran out. Police were called in several cities.

McDonald’s, realizing the error of its ways, began shipping 20 million packets of Szechuan sauce to locations nationwide last February.

Then there was the time in 2016 when Starbucks decided to launch its publicity stunt/social movement “Race Together,” which attempted to kick off a national conversation about race by having patrons randomly discuss race relations when the phrase “race together” was written on a coffee cup by their barista.

The movement was quickly shut down – and though Starbucks did not manage to kick off a national conversation on race in an increasingly diverse society, they did inadvertently manage to bring that diverse society together for a moment.

All people, of all races and walks of life, came together to note that they really, really didn’t want to have a conversation about race relations with their barista on their way to work in the morning.

It was a rare miss for Starbucks, incidentally, as they are among the rare firms that are usually pretty good at using publicity stunts as marketing material. Everyone on Earth agreed the Unicorn Frappuccino was undrinkable – and yet it drove people to Starbucks in droves (as have many of its other undrinkable blends, like the Mermaid Frappuccino). Starbucks even managed to turn its annual release of a Christmas cup into something of a publicity stunt, as Americans from coast to coast debated the design, and whether it is symptomatic of a cultural war on Christmas.

Threading that needle with a marketing stunt is tricky work – the hook has to be big enough to get the customer’s attention and get them interested, but small enough that no one stabs anyone else over it, and no one’s two-year-old ends up in tears.

Get it right, and it’s literally all unicorns and glitter.

Get it wrong?

You find out exactly how angry people can get at the purveyors of pancakes and teddy bears.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.