25 Publicity Stunts Gone Horribly Wrong

Posted by , Updated on April 24, 2024

Publicity gimmicks generally are not held in high regard, often associated with guerilla marketing tactics rather than respectful entities. However, after reviewing this list, you might question that assumption. These failed publicity stunts were not headed by small firms, but rather, they were executed by notable corporations and ended up in disappointment.

How miserably? Well, miserably enough that the companies here paid a lot of money to public relations teams so that they would clean up the mess. So how bad can they be? Pretty bad. The thing about big companies is that it is hard to keep tabs on what everyone is doing.

Even if somebody somewhere along the managerial chain of command had the presence of mind to know that whatever marketing stunt was in the works would not be a good idea, it’s borderline impossible to keep track of everything and make sure that it all rolls out smoothly.

Inevitably, you’re probably going to step on a lot of toes, especially because publicity stunts by their very nature don’t really lend themselves well to oversight.

Depending on your point of view though (bystander, victim, company), even bad publicity is still publicity. These are 25 Publicity Stunts Gone Horribly Wrong.


Featured Image: pixabay


Taylor Swift

Taylor SwiftImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

She once did a contest where she would sing for the school that had the most votes. The winning school was Horace Mann, a school for the deaf.


Bill Cosby

Bill CosbyImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Possibly the worst thing that Cosby’s public relations team could have done was to ask people to make memes of him almost immediately following the publication of rape allegations against him. Believe it or not, that is what they did, with predictable results.


Richard and Mayumi Heene

hot air balloonImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

After claiming that their boy was in a balloon up in the air by himself, a massive military and law enforcement mobilization followed that was covered by media around the world. Eventually, the “balloon boy” was found hiding in the family’s garage. On a subsequent TV interview, the young child gave up the truth when questioned by the host saying his parents had told him it was “for the show.” The parents were later arrested for fraud.


Burger King

Burger KingImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

They ran a campaign where if you unfriended 10 people you got a burger. The worst part? They told those people that you unfriended them for a burger.


Invisible Children

Invisible ChildrenSource: wikipedia

This non-profit’s documentary, Kony 2012, backfired spectacularly in numerous ways when it was proven to be almost completely false and misleading. The maker even ended up having a mental breakdown and running naked through the streets.



PitbullImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

He held a contest where he would perform for whatever Walmart got the most votes. After 4chan got in on the contest, a Walmart in Alaska won. Pitbull went and performed anyway.



McDonaldsImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

During the 1984 Olympics, McDonald’s offered free food whenever the US won a medal. Unfortunately for McDonald’s, the only other country to really stand much of a chance (USSR) boycotted the Olympics that year. Needless to say, they gave away a lot of free food.


Michael Dukakis

Michael DukakisImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Already seen as a softy during a time in which the US was facing down the USSR, Dukakis’s bid for the presidency was shattered when he posed for a photoshoot in a tank that served to make him look like an even more inept commander in chief than his opposition had already painted him as. Some say that the backfiring of this photo almost singlehandedly cost him the election against Bush.


Justin Bieber

Justin BieberImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

After 4chan got wind of an online poll to determine where Justin should go for his “My World” tours, North Korea came out as the undisputed champion.


United Airlines

United AirlinesImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In the 1960’s, United Airlines had a promotion called “Take Me Along” where businessmen were encouraged to take their wives on their trips. After the trip, a company representative would call to follow up but quite often the response they got was “What trip?” Apparently, United Airlines ended up exposing quite a few extra-marital affairs.


Cleveland Indians

Cleveland IndiansImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

During 10 Cent Beer Night (which was exactly what it sounds like), fans got so wasted and rowdy that the Cleveland Indians had to forfeit the game.


United Way

United WayImage: vimeo, Source: wikipedia

Although these guys have more corporate fails than should even be reasonably expected by a charity, their releasing-millions-of-balloons-over-cleveland-in-1986 stunt tops them all. The balloons reduced visibility over Lake Eerie so significantly that the Coast Guard couldn’t reach 2 fisherman who ended up dying on the water. United Way was later sued.



PepsiImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

During the Pepsi Points Campaign, a Harrier Jet was jokingly listed for 7.5 million points. To Pepsi’s surprise, someone actually bought that many points and demanded their fighter jet. In fact, Pepsi was even taken to court over it (Pepsi won in the end).



NYPDImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

After attempting a twitter campaign under the hashtag #myNYPD that was meant to show people happily posing with local officers….well, lets just say it backfired in a very predictable way.


The Fine Brothers

The Fine BrothersImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

After attempting to trademark their “react” videos format, they never quite recovered, in spite of the fact that they even tried to play it off as a publicity stunt.



SnappleImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

They tried to make the world’s biggest popsicle out of their new flavor in downtown New York, but the popsicle melted before they could prop it up for the Guinness Book of World Records to measure it. Apparently, sanitation workers had quite the mess to clean up.


Cartoon Network

Cartoon NetworkImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

During a guerrilla marketing campaign, Cartoon Network left boxes around several cities related to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Someone in Boston reported a stranger leaving a shady box, so the police came in and blew it up. Cartoon Network was subsequently fined.



LaysImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

Known as Walker’s in the UK, the company ran a promotion where you basically got free chips if you could accurately predict where it would rain that day. What they must not have realized, however, is that it’s the UK. It rains everywhere, everyday. Needless to say, they lost a lot of money.


American Airlines

American AirlinesImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In the 80’s and 90’s, American Airlines sold air passes for life that cost about $250,000. Although the passes have been discontinued (people used them much more than American Airlines thought they would, and the company calculated massive losses) American Airlines is still honoring the ones that they issued.



KFCImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

When Oprah gave away free KFC coupons on her site, KFC was so inundated that they stopped honoring them. The bad part for KFC? El Pollo Loco decided to honor the KFC coupons and got a massive boost in business and publicity.


Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad

Missouri-Kansas-Texas RailroadImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

In 1896, this railroad company organized a train wreck as a publicity stunt. The subsequent explosion was much bigger than engineers had anticipated and numerous people were injured.



LifelockImage: youtube, Source: wikipedia

The CEO of this identity protection company publicly released his social security number to show that Lifelock works. His identification was then stolen and abused 13 times. He also had to pay for false advertisement.


Morton Downey Jr

Morton Downey JrImage: youtube, Source: wikipedia

At first he claimed that he was attacked in a bathroom at San Francisco International Airport by neo-Nazis and that they allegedly drew a swastika on his face. His problem? The swastika was drawn on backwards…as if by someone looking a mirror. Needless to say, his popularity tanked after that.


Mountain Dew

Mountain DewImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

After holding an online contest to name their next flavor, the winning entry was “Hitler did nothing wrong.”


JP Morgan

JP MorganImage: wikipedia, Source: wikipedia

They had to cancel a Twitter Q&A after getting predictable questions like, “Can I get my house back now?”   If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out 25 Public Relations Nightmares That You Won’t Believe Actually Happened.