Marketing stunts bring out the best (and worst) of brands

Marketing grad Beverley Theresa breaks down social media campaigns

The moment Gritty, the orange wrecking ball of fun-fur and energy, made his National Hockey League debut, fans and even casual observers of the game were hooked.

Everything about the Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot defied traditional norms, from his nightmarish googly red eyes to a devil-may-care attitude that saw him shoot a fan in the back with a T-shirt cannon and more recently put a gaggle of Santas on ice. Even his introduction to the world – in a video shared on social media – captivated the public’s attention in a way that would make any publicity-hungry brand envious.

“It was very funny – it was sleek, modern and kind of reminded me of a Drake video,” says Beverley Theresa (Marketing ’06), an Edmonton-based social media consultant.

Mascots might be an old-time way for brands to connect with customers, but Gritty is anything but traditional. He has his own web page where you can read his origin story and a social media presence that includes more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and another 123,000 on Instagram, where his amped-up attitude is on full display.

But why is a Gritty a hero when other marketing stunts are zeros? There’s no secret formula to what takes a campaign from social marketing stunt to viral sensation. At the very least, it involves authenticity, entertainment and luck. We talked to Theresa, who is a prolific blogger about social media and marketing, about brands who have risen above the noise, those who’ve struggled to rise to the task, and those who’ve gone viral for the wrong reasons.

Here’s take on some of the most popular – and loathed – viral stunts in recent memory.

The internet loves sass

Gritty is the unabashed embodiment of the rough-and-tumble Flyers brand he represents and of Philadelphia itself. And he’s riding a wave of social media snark that’s become popularized by brands such as Wendy’s, which has three million followers on Twitter thanks to an edgy personality that’s seen the burger chain roast the competition without mercy.

“It’s real and I love the sassiness,” says Theresa. “You can see other brands try and jump in on the that and be like Wendy’s.”

IHOP (International House of Pancakes), which in 2018 announced a rebrand to “IHOb” – International House of Burgers – is a recent example of a brand jumping on the sassy bandwagon with a social stunt designed to maximize followers and reach. Though the campaign did result in considerable social and traditional media attention, it didn’t move the needle on sales and in the end was pure PR stunt. Mostly, says Theresa, it was just confusing.

“People were skeptical about it and you don’t want them to be skeptical, you want them to embrace you.”

Even in failure, brands should be applauded for trying something different, she adds.

“At least they’re recognizing that there’s so much noise happening online and in the media that they have to do something different to stand out.”

Jeff Goldblum memes make a real-life impact

Embed from Getty Images

It’s no secret the internet loves Jeff Goldblum. The actor is the star of countless memes, often the shirtless variety that harkens back to his turn in the 1980s remake of the Fly. The U.K.’s Now TV brought Goldblum memes to life with a giant statue erected near the Tower Bridge in London to help the network celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park.

“I’m a big fan of the statue and wish I had one on my lawn, but others are saying the stunt was lazy because it wasn’t creative enough. However, the agency who actually created the idea won an award for it.”

Taking stunts to the next level (of the atmosphere)

SpaceX set out on a unique star trek when it launched a Tesla Roadster into space. The convertible, with a spacesuit-clad mannequin at the wheel, has since rocketed past the orbit of Mars. But the stunt hasn’t been a hit with everyone.

“The live stream of this was super boring. I literally made a ham sandwich and came back to the computer only to see the same image over and over. Don’t get me wrong, the imagery is great (I just don’t need four hours of it). Elon Musk got so much attention from this campaign [484,000 likes and 173,000 retweets] and I think the ’80s vibe from the car and the dummy definitely helped make it into a social media success.”

The Aussie rules fake-out stunt

Can you imagine the sheer audacity of a Crocodile Dundee reboot with comedian – and non-Aussie – Danny McBride in the starring role? Stranger things have happened in Hollywood, but it turns this slickly produced trailer was a fake out created by Tourism Australia to sell the world on adventuring Down Under.

“I hadn’t heard of this before, but the bait and switch of the commercial was actually genius and didn’t feel forced or too ‘salesy.’ I think Australia definitely nailed it with this fake trailer,” she says, though wondered how they can determine the cost per conversion.

Trivializing sensitive social movements isn’t cool

Remember when Pepsi thought it was a good idea to draw parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement and showcase their cola as a peace-offering between protesters and police, starring Kendall Jenner? (Chances are the ad was pulled before you even heard about it, but it was a departure from the soda-maker’s popstar spots or its friendly PepsiMoji campaign).

It was an example of “clueless executives sitting at a boardroom table trying to ‘get hip’ with youngins,” says Theresa.

“I wonder if there were actually any people of colour involved in creating the campaign. The diversity of races included in the video is great, but it’s totally obvious that that’s what Pepsi is going for. I feel like they’re just trying to jump on the bandwagon of being semi-controversial and if Pepsi had a history of doing so, then this campaign wouldn’t have received the backlash it did on social media.”

Exploiting tragedy not a sales winner

McDonald’s UK aimed for an emotional response by using a grieving child to sell fish sandwiches – and it worked. The backlash wasn’t Pepsi-Jenner level, but it was still fierce. For Theresa, it was more confusing than offensive.

“Was it supposed to tug at our heartstrings? Stop trying to be like Tim Hortons already (I have actually cried while watching a Tim Hortons commercial).

“Personally, I don’t have an issue with the fact that McDonald’s used a sad kid to sell Filet-o-Fish. I just think it was badly executed. And of course, like anything, McDonald’s apologized for using child bereavement to sell their products but Twitter kept harassing them about it. But do we really think this bad idea on McDonald’s part will hurt overall sales? Most likely not.”

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