Monday, August 12, 2013

Writing 101: Publicity Stunts

What's the craziest marketing idea you ever had? A few years back, I launched a one-woman email campaign under an assumed name in an attempt to get a certain right-wing, conservative talk radio host to publicly denounce a book I wrote (under a different pen name, in a former life). I happen to believe that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, and there's an entire school of thought that controversy sells books...but I digress. The point is, I'm not above at least attempting a publicity stunt (because my campaign didn't work, FYI)...and you shouldn't be, either. 


Hanging Upside-Down from a Building

I saw this movie about Houdini once. It was based on his life (they call that a biopic) and it really wasn't very good (it had everything to do with the actor that played Houdini, whom I won't name). But I do remember this one thing about it quite distinctly: he was a master of the publicity stunt. Houdini resorted to all sorts of stuff in order to get attention for his feats of daring magic-do, and it worked. He had himself locked inside jail cells, punched in the gut, tossed into bags...and once, in Las Vegas, he put himself in a straight jacket and hung upside-down from a truly eye-popping height.

Suspended above one of the city's tallest buildings, Houdini hung there...until he started to draw an enormous crowd. This is how he introduced himself to the city. And whether you care for his tactics or not, you've got to admit that he did something right -- because you've probably heard the name Houdini before you ever found this blog. The man died almost 9 decades ago, and you still know his name. 

That's good marketing. Publicity stunts are a fantastic way to get lots of attention very quickly, but you have to tread lightly. Writing inflammatory (and fake) emails is one thing, but publicity stunts of Houdini's ilk are life-threatening (go back and read that again: life-threatening). So if you're going to pull a publicity stunt, please come up with one that couldn't possibly cause you or any bystanders any injury. If there is any risk or danger involved whatsoever, take all necessary safety precautions. 

I should probably also caution you not to break the law, though in some of my crazier moments I've often thought that even a jail term is negligible. But seriously, don't break the law and don't implicate me if you do. I am not advocating in any way that any authors go out and break laws in order to gain publicity.

However, I do condone a perfectly legal and relatively harmless publicity stunt. There are lots of good examples of safe, legal stunts. The most famous publicity stunt ever just may be the Boston Tea Party, but please don't go declare war to sell some books.

Ever heard of the Tour de France? A French newspaper organized the first one, back in 1903, to get more readers. It worked, by the way. The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade was also a PR stunt for the department store, back in 1924. In 1999, 11 UK ladies from the Women's Institute posed nude to raise money for charity. They cleverly used flowers and bakery items to hide the more R-rated areas of their anatomy, and got so much attention it even inspired a film.

And in the UK, a student glued himself to a billboard for a book promotion. Publicity stunts can work sometimes, and sometimes they fail. The beauty of a really good publicity stunt, however, is that even a failure can be a success because they may get media attention, too. By the way, I don't think you should glue yourself to a billboard.

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