Posts Tagged ‘stunt’
Plato, pressure and the death of PR stunts
Activists scaled The Shard and the Home Office brazenly paraded their views on strategically driven ad vans. Has the PR stunt died a somewhat tepid death? In a CommsChat twitter conversation, Mark Borkowski discusses bullish lobbying, the art of EQ & the importance of play via Plato.
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Photo Credit: Andre Camara
So there we have it; the conclusion of the greatest product launch campaign Britain has ever seen. No, Apple didn’t bring out the iWatch while you weren’t looking. I’m talking about the latest release from modish mass market lifestyle brand Clarence House. In order to promote the latest instalment in their Cambridge range, the brand’s PR pixies arranged a years-long campaign, incorporating a wedding-based stunt, a boat party, several celebrity world tours and a much-hyped mystery unveiling. The whole thing is enough to make an old hand like me exhausted, but will it pay off?
A good bet for an early health-check is to look at the social media traction. Twitter have run a blog (link: http://blog.uk.twitter.com/2013/07/royalbaby.html?m=1) deconstructing the ‘royalbaby’ hashtag which will make encouraging reading for Clarence House’s analysts. Following the official launch announcement (timed daringly late – 8.35pm) twitter action reached 25,300 tweets per minute.
Clarence House kept a handle on the conversation throughout. Their announcement included a series of tweets revealing tantalising product details (including the all-important weight, usually considered to be a crucial detail in the sector) which provided food for discussion for consumers. They also arranged supporting tweets from brand-appropriate influencers, including the Daily Mail and the British Monarchy. The brand will also be pleased that they’ve ironed out creases in their social media machine. Their 2011 ‘Royal Wedding’ stunt – which garnered great trad media traction – sparked criticism from some commentators for its strikingly negative reception among 33% of British Tweeters (link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2011/04/29/one-third-of-brits-on-twitter-dont-care-about-royal-wedding/).
Speaking of trad media, the launch marks the jewel in the crown of Clarence House’s much lauded press and broadcast strategy. Over the past few years a team of advisers including Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, Paddy Harverson and most recently Sally Osman (a canny acquisition from Sony, another big selling entertainment producer) have run a PR campaign which stands as a benchmark for taking advantage of a weakened media.
For decades, the rambunctious British press, heartened by a progressive public spirit, painted the brand as unfashionable and outdated. It took particular joy in the infamous malfunction of the popular Princess Wales model (though it showed contrition after forcing that product from the market). Now, with newsrooms collapsing, broadcast getting puffier by the day and commentary fracturing across cyberspace, Clarence House has realised the media has a use for the brand values its products offer: pappy nationalism, quirky political incorrectness and soft-focus shots of brunette women in dresses. Only British Daily The Independent dared to cover the launch without a hefty forelock tug, and analysts predict 90% of independent readers are sandal-wearing teachers who hate fun, love and freedom.
However, the real test will come in the value for Clarence House’s shadowy parent company Brand Britain (BBinc). BBinc have great success with their own stunts, including an innovative experiential advert-cum-sports party last summer, and they’ll be watching to see if Clarence House, which is a pricy and strategically complex asset, can still deliver the goods. One study last year valued Clarence House at £44bn, largely due to its popularity in foreign markets, but others disagree. On BBC breakfast this morning republican campaigner Graham Swift claimed that Visit Britain predict a near-zero change in tourism revenues if BBinc were to scrap its venerable property.
What’s more, we’ll need to see how the product matures. When, for the first time, it appears before the public to demonstrate the functionality we citizens have paid for, how will it work? When it looks at the array of camera flashes and hungry eyes, at the waving celebrity bandwagoners and the grasping politicians, what will it do? Will it stand firm, or will it falter? Will it understand that while it feels like it’s flesh and blood, it’s really manufactured? Only time will tell.
Last week, six members of Greenpeace ascended their way into the history books during fifteen hours of sheer sweat, muscle and no doubt emotion, as they scaled The Shard to draw attention to Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. It was a bold, inspiring, beautiful action, that did the thing that all great stunts do: for a brief moment, took our breath away.
Stunts like this have always divided opinion, and in an age where everyone has the microphone of social media available to them, the multifarious views are more apparent than ever. For some the women climbing the Shard were heroes, for others they were attention seeking loons. But what has really caused debate is whether a stunt like this actually has a long term impact worthy of the huge amount of investment and preparation that goes into setting it up?
It’s true that the charity took ownership of the media agenda, attracting tens of thousands of new sign-ups for its campaign, and that #iceclimb got trending on Twitter. Shell has presumably experienced quite significant brand damage, and released a very half-hearted statement that received minimal media exposure and did little to offset concerns about their actions in the Arctic.
Will this all add up to significant change where it matters: in the board rooms of the City and the halls of Westminster? Harnessing the power of social media through an action like this is a great means of amplifying a cause. The stunt has laid a great foundation for change. But it will require sustained action to bring about a real shift in policy. The people who make a difference are those that move behind the scenes: the senior key opinion leaders who have the ears of the rich and powerful. Garnering their support is a fine art, and more often than not it rests on private, personal exchanges, as well as headline grabbing stunts.
So #Felix is no longer just a brand of cat food or a defunct cartoon character, but embodies a new marque of heroism and maverick adventure. A stuntman extraordinaire, who last night earned much sort after one word equity.
Felix Baumgartner, a 43-year-old Austrian, former military parachutist, skydived into the record books. Jumping from 23 miles above the earth, Felix reached a mind numbing maximum speed of 833.9 miles per hour (1,342 kilometres per hour)- amounting to Mach 1.24, faster than the speed of sound.
In the midst of all the furore surrounding our new superstar, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the brand hero who made it all possible – Red Bull.
Over the past 10 years Red Bull has done its level best to own and invest its central ethos into speed, adventure and heroics . From the Flugtag to Felix, Red Bull has taken the reins, moving beyond usual corporate sponsorship and creating extraordinary events tailor-made to communicate its values, in an uncompromising pursuit of brand nirvana.
Back in a land time has forgotten I developed a strategic roll out for a net channel, Network of The World: a challenging brand with a passion to be the first footing web entrepreneurs of the new age of information culture. NOW were looking for a big idea to kick start the brand across the globe. I found a team of adventurers with a big event idea, and they introduced me to Joe Kittinger.
Until yesterday Mr Kittinger was the parachute record holder. His 1960 record was broken by Felix, who Kittinger coached and mentored throughout the development of the jump. Kittinger was the only person allowed to communicate with Mr Baumgartner while he was inside the capsule which carried him into space.
Kittinger was a scarily impressive action man; a real life super hero whose bravery allowed the development of suits used by the Space crews who ultimately stepped foot on the moon. His primitive jumps 50 years ago did not benefit from the technology which aided Felix in the 21st century. His adventure had all the qualities of great stories that capture imaginations around the world. It was dangerous, it was visually captivating, it was a tale of one man triumphing against the odds, and he was ready to work with us to make it happen again.
We spent months working on a means to bring the event to fruition, but alas NOW did not have the resources to enable a edge of space jump back in 1999. Their loss was Red Bull’s gain, and so naturally I have been watching Red Bull’s methodology of delivering the hype for Felix’s jump keenly.
The brand has paid meticulous attention to detail, drilling down to the heroics and the romance of the story, creating a captivating narrative that will benefit them for years to come. They are one of very few brands with the guts and disruptive forethought to own this type of event, and a number of lessons might be learnt from them.
Many, many brands search for global ubiquity. Many are on the constant look out for big ideas, throwing massive budgets behind half pregnant creatives framed by global advertising support. Few ignite the imagination and match a brand ethos. All too often time is wasted on ill considered, flash-in-the-pan stunts that fail to ignite a relationship with the brand. Few invest in the brain power and few have the culture of patience to work through an idea. In a strict risk averse culture, it is almost impossible to nurture Maverick thought, or to embrace the odd personalities with the best ideas.
Yesterday Felix and Red Bull raised the bar. The challenge is clear: just as Baumgartner took Kittinger’s mantel, the global brand that will claim Red Bull’s throne will be the one that is able to contemplate the true definition of the little word with frightening, but powerful, career implications – risk.
The bank holiday would not be complete with out a silly season story. This year we were spoiled with the legend of the itinerant Essex lion. Mysteriously, an escaped lion was spotted on the loose in Essex, instilling panic as it roamed the grassland of St Osyth.
The big game media hunters turned up in their droves, hunting down a witty soundbite. The search for the elusive big cat provided a never ending stream of comic reports for the 24 minute news cycle. Twitter and other social media channels were awash with jokes surrounding the #EssexLion, lending their weight to this most agreeable meme.
I smelt a rat. The tale had all the hallmarks of a publicity stunt – a classic Circus scam. The history of promoting circus is littered with highly mischievous stunts just like it.The huge U.S. animal circuses cooked up some of the finest. Clever showmen regularly freed the odd exotic into a town to create excitement; generous rewards were offered to the person who might trap and return the errant animal. An escaped beast was a headline grabbing way to announce the circus had come to town.
The kangaroo was traditionally favoured for such a stunt- one of the most exotic animals and perhaps the most benign. One famous boxing kangaroo spent more time on the run than in its cage. But the trend was soon spotted by the authorities: legislation, fines and licencing red tape followed bringing the practice to an end.
No matter to our intrepid circus promoters. Great showmen, like the maverick genius P.T. Barnum, knew a thing or two about the influence of the herd. He recognised his audience as his greatest marketing asset. If the crowd was excited, word of mouth- and ticket sales- inevitably followed. Barnum was the original viral marketeer.
So when the legislation curtailed the lost wild animal scam, they turned to what they knew best: the power of the story. Roland Butler, perhaps the greatest circus PR man, trained a team of men to spread the rumour instead. They were fantastic story tellers who would visit bars and churches to suggest the idea of an escaped beast. Butler quickly realised that if the narrative was a captivating story meme, a simple idea – even without any proof- it would spread like a bush fire. Similar rumour and disinformation tactics were used by special forces in Nazi occupied Europe to destabilise occupation.
Perhaps time will tell if the Essex Lion was PR fabrication, mass hallucination, or a simple case of mistaken feline identity. Ultimately, whether or not there was an escaped big cat prowling St Osyth is irrelevant. The power of the social driven media age proves that we are more interested in the potential and context of the story, rather than the truth. Especially when we need some enjoyment to help us forget the damp Bank Holiday weekend.
A deep collective breath is perhaps needed. Pippa Middleton’s identification with firearms last weel, thanks to the somewhat incautious actions of friend Romain Rabillard, has led many to predict that her fledging career in the public eye is already over. Like her sister, runs the thinking, Middleton’s image relies on propriety- all 3 Middleton siblings have a tidy line in British demureness and easy class (bum jokes aside, that is). Now she’s been seen with a gun-toting aristocrat, speeding down a Paris Rue (or possible Avenue) to what the media must assume was some kind of hedonistic love-fest, we’ll all fall out of love with her. I cannot imagine this being the case.
Unquestionably, she’s damaged a previously untarnished image. However, if recent public opinion surrounding the Royals shows us anything, it’s that this is no longer a family (or extended family) you can write off at the drop of a hat. Besides, whatever becomes of Pippa, it’s highly unlikely that such an affair would do much to worry the custodians of the Royal Brand, who keep their charges in a very different space.
It seems like no time at all since we saw Harry splashed all over the papers, dressed in an SS uniform, stumbling out of a party. I wonder how all the commentators who wrote him off then felt when they saw the almost sickeningly adoring coverage around his recent meeting with Usain Bolt. Probably as gobsmacked as the rest of us, to be fair.
Undoubtedly, Pippa will have learned a hard lesson- when you’re associated with the Royals, you’re damned whatever you do, and you’re judged by the company you keep. However, I’d say this lesson comes at an opportune time. Still in the first flush of fame, this episode should teach Pippa how to begin thinking of herself as a brand. The key now will be for her to think about what she represents, move away from the users and hangers on who inevitably attach themselves to the newly famous and begin considering the serious commercial applications of her brand I’m sure remain just around the corner.
It looks like Tupac Shakur’s back on top for the foreseeable future- it was announced today that his frankly rather terrifying hologram will be going on tour following its first outing at Coachella festival. More than anything else, this is proof of the remarkable power of a great stunt- and is a blow for the great American tradition of stuntsmanship. Just think, Coachella dug up Tupac, Hop Farm dug up Bruce Forsythe.
As the megalithic rapper burst onto the stage with a cry of “What the **** is up Coachella? Throw up a m************ finger!”, a cynic could hear the jingling of thousands of eager pockets as the entire live entertainment industry collectively calculated the potential posthumous income of a galaxy of late stars.
Money aside, though, this was everything a stunt should be: audacious, loud, unexpected, genuinely groundbreaking (Digitial Domain Media Group Inc. reckon this is the first time totally new 3D footage of a star has been used in this way) and, best of all, just a little bit silly. Supposedly, too, the bill behind this wasn’t negligible- most valuations are coming in at around the $1/2m mark.
Whatever Coachella pixies were behind this should be applauded: in the entertainment space, faint heart never won the hearts and minds of the fickle crowd. Let’s hope those with the power on our side of the pond are taking note and getting ready to listen to a few wild ideas. Ones that don’t involve billing Bruce Forsythe alongside Bob Dylan, that is.
Back at the start of last week, wherever you turned in mediaworld you found someone sticking their oar in (sorry) to the discussion on wayward idealist Australian Trenton Oldfield and his Pankhurst-esque self-sacrificial boat race stunt. I shan’t bother now to throw in my two cents about the morality of Oldfield’s actions, but I do think that what he has done impacts negatively upon those of us whose business and/or passion it is to grab headlines with acts of disruptive showmanship.
The first thing to say is that this was a pretty bland stunt. What I’m more worried about, however, is what this will do for police and public paranoia in the run-up to the Olympics. Already at boiling point, the police and LOCOG have spent the past few months whipping each other up into a frenzy over crowd control and health and safety. This will only confirm their worst fears. Any innocent reveller or spectator at any event could be a dangerous, subversive madman! Time to send in the thought police.
Generally, too, this event comes as part of a zeitgeist increasingly antithetical to the art of the stunt. The (largely negative) commentary on Oldfield’s actions focused more than almost anything else on how dangerous his actions were, how he endangered his life, how he caused inconvenience in restarting the race. Outrage at his politics would have been much more interesting- not to mention more favourable for his agenda. Caught in a pincer movement between a blandly litigious society on the one hand and a media landscape oversaturated with ill-considered stunts on the other, the public have no appetite for maverick antics.
Perhaps what’s been lost is a belief in the stunt as a piece of fun, a joke, almost a gift. Rather than a piece of direct action or a forcible promotion, a stunt should be playful, gentle and, preferably, crazy. A stunt’s impact comes from laughter, and from the sheer joy that persuades people to share. All the classic stunts share this aspect, whether they be making a serious point- Joey Skagg’s giant bra springs to mind (link)- or selling a bit of fluff like Reichenbach’s T.Arzan (link).
I call for a return not only to creativity in stunting but a permissiveness and relaxation in its execution. In our red-tape age it’s easy to forget that a public performance should be joyful. Whether you’re an activist or a marketer, try and perform, not preach. Theatres are far more fun than churches.
Yesterday’s failed Bayern Munich stunt was an ideal example of what happens when creative energy fails to connect with the reality of the media narrative. For those who didn’t hear, the German football team wrangled a piece of PR trickery which fuelled an horrific backlash.
An announcement on their website that “a spectacular name” was to sign for the club invited fans to watch the name’s unveiling on the team’s Facebook page.
Needless to say, an incredible amount of furore was generated and fans eagerly tuned in at the proposed time in their thousands. However, following a short video clip from FCB’s general manager Christian Nerlinger, fans were treated to a view of their own Facebook profile picture, followed by their own name on the back of a Bayern Munich number 8 shirt.
The unmatchable Hollywood publicist, agent and stuntmaker Jay Bernstein has shown us all once again how a true publicity superstar does things with a fitting final stunt. The sadly deceased genius has defied having his inimitable profile smothered even by death himself, and has managed to release his book onto an unsuspecting public from beyond the grave. Anyone who cares at all about the art of truly inspirational PR, from understanding clients to launching groundbreaking stunts, should buy it. Right now.
Being a PR, I just can’t resist a quick plug: those looking to understand Bernstein’s remarkable talents could also do worse than investing in a copy of my book The Fame Formula. In it, I dissect, analyse and celebrate the incredible gift of Bernstein and his ilk for capturing the public, as well as understanding so well the stars they catapulted to fame with apparent ease. Their arts aren’t lost, but they are essential background reading for anyone seeking to make waves in the comparatively anodyne world of modern communications. In these uncertain days in the shadow of a certain Lord L, the lessons of the past have never been more pressing.
Bernstein was one of the absolute greats. Unmistakably, he was a true showman of the kind I’ve always admired. His stunts, which ranged from artificially stoking Tom Jones’s sex bomb reputation with hired pantie-throwers to holding his own-televised- wedding underwater, are now the stuff of legend. Like Jim Moran and other ancient heroes of mine, he was a fabulous ringmaster of publicity and pizazz.
However, for all the hype about him being the ‘inventor of the modern publicity stunt’, his greatest talent was far more subtle. While researching the Fame Formula, he was one of the figures I had the pleasure of interviewing during a stint across the pond. A gent and an enthusiast, he gave up his valuable time without complaint. Upon entering his house- formerly owned by Rita Hayward and site of the first Jacuzzi in Hollywood- my eyes were assailed by a remarkable collection of memorabilia. The place was filled with debris from his remarkable time in the industry.
As a hopeless collector myself I was excited by the sheer volume of it (and I particularly wonder what happened to his incredible collection of stuffed animals), but I was also impressed and touched: these deeply personal items were evidence of the highly developed bonds Bernstein had with his clients. His memories of each and every client were fond, full and nuanced. One particularly memorable moment involved him musing as to what John Wayne might have said if he’d been offered the script for Brokeback Mountain, just released at the time.
He took clients all the way, and each of the crazy stories he launched came from a place of deep thinking, considered strategy and mutual trust.
It strikes me that, while Jay’s stunts place him in the vein of ‘publicist’s publicist’, his relationships with clients offer up lessons to those in any line of work. Brand communications in any field can only work from a basis of deep mutual respect between those working within the brand and those pushing it out. Madness, controversy and conversation spring from narratives mutually developed and sculpted over years- Bernstein knew this, but I fear it’s something we’re starting to forget.