Apr 5th 2016

Stunts: a PR Story

Carlsberg were recently in the spotlight for a stunt which had everyone laughing. Puns, chocolate, and beer all in one place. The stunt is an integral part of PR and it has come a long way, no doubt about it. It could be giving out products at Waterloo in the morning, or it could be something a bit more on the complex side…something that could be ground-breaking and really quite new. Where though, did the idea come from? Why do they work?

Let’s go back to a simpler time when public relations was more of an afterthought.

The year is 1919. Edward Bernays has been working for US President Woodrow Wilson for a few years, and has been invited to attend the Paris Peace Conference. Bernays was astounded at how the slogan “bringing democracy to all of Europe” had so much effect on the public in Europe but also in the US. He wondered whether this consistent use of phrasing could be employed during peacetime. He came up with the term “public relations”, and started putting it to use.

Bernays decided to use group psychology, and he used it to great effect. Taking teachings from Gustav LeBon (a social psychologist), and his uncle (a fairly well-known psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), he began to pioneer their use in industry and he created results without precedent for his clients. The most famous of which, now used as a case study for anyone on a PR course or degree, was the cigarette industry.

In 1929, women smoking in public was still taboo. Cigarette companies weren’t too happy, as they were essentially missing out on 50% of their potential client base. Lucky Strike was one of the companies at the heart of this. They commissioned Bernays to boost their sales, especially amongst women. He decided to make it a public event. America was in the grip of the Great Depression, and needed something to look forward to. Bernays decided to create the Easter Parade in New York City, and he was going to use it to boost Lucky Strike’s sales. But he was lacking something that we all want: compelling and engaging content.

He gathered debutantes, and made them part of the parade. He gave them each a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, and with them very specific instructions: to light them in unison at a specific time during the parade. They lit up, their photos were taken, and their “Torches of Freedom” were covered in every major press outlet in NYC, paving the way for the breaking down of this social taboo (at the time), and opening up a new market segment for Lucky Strike and others to profit from.

With this, Bernays started his journey to convince industry that news, not advertising, was the best way to carry their message to the public, and strengthen their influence.

To this day the PR Stunt is a tool that is used to great effect. They can go well and go viral, such as the above, or they can go very badly. They are also changing, a parade, to a bar made of chocolate, to a series of tweets. This just goes to show that like many things in PR, adaptation to current trends and appetites is your friend. It does make you think though: is it necessary to know about our beginnings when it comes to stunts, or should PR professionals focus on what lies ahead and leave the past behind?


Babel PR