News has come in that Apple are attempting to sell iPhones in Poland by paying actors to queue outside the stores to whoop up interest in the all-singing, all-dancing phone which is released there on Friday. According to Reuters, a spokesman has said: “We have these fake queues at front of 20 stores around the country to drum up interest in the iPhone.”
It’s a great step back for the company, which “sold about one million of the new iPhone models in the United States around the July launch weekend”. It shows that, though they may have the design side of their business sewn up, they lack a certain something when it comes to a hard sell in a country that may not be quite as willing as the Americans or British to pay a high tariff for a stylish new phone.
There are certainly subtler ways of selling a seemingly unpopular product, but it does prove that the great publicity stunster, Harry Reichenbach, is still being imitated, however pale the imitation may be.
In 1920, Reichenbach was engaged to help sell a movie called Over the Hill to the Poor House, which was selling out the balcony but had virtually no one in the orchestra seats. He initiated an intensive advertising campaign, with as many star name endorsements as he could muster, and then set about organising a series of “inexpensive street spectacles”.
The first of these involved to errand boys, who were engaged to smash a huge framed painting of Over the Hill, as Reichenbach renamed it, in front of one of the movie houses. Crowds gathered to watch as the two errand boys were forced to clear up every splinter of glass by a policeman. One of them started to cry because he was going to lose his job for smashing the glass. The crowd gathered in and raised a collection for him. All the while, they were staring at the movie’s promotional picture lying on the street. This lasted at least an hour.
The next step was to engage the same to errand boys to accidentally spill a bag of 5,000 pennies over the streets of New York. Vast numbers of people stopped to help collect the coins – all of them were told that the pennies were for the box office of Over the Hill; implicit in this was the idea that the theatres needed vast numbers of coins for the attendant crowds.
But these two stunts were merely seeds for the final stunt, which involved twelve couples in evening dress, culled from the ranks of the most attractive movie extras money could buy, all dressed to look like they were from the upper echelons of the New York social set. They were paid to converge, in teams of three from the four ends of the compass, on the theatre district of New York, stopping at regular points were crowds gathered to loudly and clearly try to decide “whether they were going to ‘Sally’ as Ethelbert suggested or whether they would see ‘Over the Hill’ which Millicent assured them was the best thing in town”.
This discussion was primed to spill over into an argument so heated that “mobs blocked traffic to listen in”. They only ever reached a decision when the police came and asked them to move on, if only to ease the flow of traffic. They simply rounded the next corner and started again.
By the time they reached the theatre at which the film was playing, “thousands had heard them and hundreds followed”. They then went in to the movie carrying many of the crowds in their wake, before slipping quietly out of the back of the theatre and starting their routine all over again from a different direction. After three trips like this, they were primed to try and block book ten or more tickets. This was a tip to the ticket sellers to say they didn’t have that many tickets left, at which the actors would step back into the crowd, discussing loudly which day would suit them best to come and try and see Over the Hill again.
Reichenbach also occasionally threw a deaf old man with an ear trumpet and his clearly enunciating niece into this stunt, just for variety. The old man had great trouble hearing his niece tell him that they were going to see Over the Hill. The crowds on the street had no trouble hearing her at all.
“It was the simplest form of suggestion to the public,” wrote Reichenbach in Phantom Fame, “and it proved simply astonishing. From an initial weekly sale of less than three hundred orchestra seats we jumped to twice that number in a week and very soon after began to fill the lower floor. Over the Hill ran for more than a year in New York…”
Reichenbach’s gracefully handled stunt is the clear progenitor of Apple’s rather desperate attempt to push the iPhone onto the Polish market, but by laying bare the bones of the stunt before the product’s even gone on sale, Apple are shooting themselves in the foot. It may be true that such stunts are more easily found out in the age of the internet and that Reichenbach may have had a harder time of it now, but his policy of stunt first, admit things later was a lot more interesting and a lot less cynical. I know I’d rather see some Polish actors wandering the streets of Warsaw shouting “this phone’s terrible, I can hardly hear you – I’m going to buy an iPhone instead” into a cheap and nasty mobile and accosting passers-by, offering them their old phone for free.