When marketing people look for big ideas, they often come up with some kind of stunt, hoping that the event attracts media attention (online or mainstream). These stunts are attractive to marketers for their “PR-value”, as in “Think of all the free PR we’ll get.” And yes, sometimes they work and brands get a lot of good attention. But sometimes, the attention isn’t really the kind the marketer had in mind.

snappleTake for example Snapple’s idea to promote its new line of frozen treats in 2005 through attempting to set a Guinness World Record by erecting a 7.62-metre-tall popsicle in New York’s Union Square. It was a summer day, and guess what, the giant popsicle melted and turned into a sticky pink mess.

Snapple flooded Union Square with 1.75 tons of kiwi-strawberry-flavoured melting juice, with the liquid gushing out of a truck that was meant to haul the giant popsicle to the area. Pedestrians fled, police and fire departments were called to the area, and Snapple officials stopped the Snapple-raising at a crowd-disappointing 25-degree angle — no record, but lots of media coverage. The mushy giant block was then trucked away and a television-sized ice sculpture in the shape of the Snapple logo took its place, while city workers had to hose the area down.

Of course, this lesson could have been learned by marketers a century earlier. This kind of thing goes back a long, long way.

Take for example, the Crush, Texas train crash of 1896. Before the turn of the last century, a marketer working for the Missouri-Kansas Texas railroad, known as the “Katy,” had the idea to put on a big train wreck as a spectacle. This was the brainchild of William Crush (I didn’t make that up!), the man in charge increasing passenger sales on the Katy. He noted that train wrecks held a morbid fascination for many people, so he convinced his bosses to stage a head-on train collision and invite the public out to watch.

Crash Images.pngCrush chose an isolated spot in Texas, where two aging locomotives each carrying a few surplus cars would crash into each other  after their crews jumped to safety. The area offered hills on three sides where the public could watch but be “safely” away from the crash. They built the track, a station platform, and grandstands, bandstands, a midway, and more to house the spectators.

Media ate up the story and gave the event a lot of publicity. While viewing the crash was free, the railway charged a reduced train fare to the crash site ($2 from any location in Texas). On September 15, 1896, nearly 40,000 people showed up in the new town of Crush, Texas, temporarily making it the second-largest city in the state.

At 5 pm, with the hills crowded with onlookers, the two trains got the signal and took off towards each other and the crash point. In moments there was a deafening sound and the big crash, but things didn’t go according to plan.

220px-CrashCrushTxThe two engines telescoped together, their boilers exploding at once, sending “flying missiles of iron and steel, varying in size from a postage stamp to a half a driving wheel. Tens of thousands scrambled to avoid the iron and wood debris catapulting through the sky. Distance was no guarantee of safety; debris peppered the crowd and pocked the earth as far as 300 yards away. (From history.net) Three people died, and many more were injured.

But here’s the funny part of this story. The public outcry was minimal. The railway quietly settled lawsuits brought by injury victims and families of the dead, but Texans seemed to like the chutzpah of a railway that staged its own wreck. Business on the Katy boomed, and the crash became something of an inside joke, with other businesses using it as their own advertising strategies. For example, the press photographer who was hit by a stray bolt that ripped through his right eye and lodged in his brain, later took out a newspaper ad reading, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.”

Still, you think marketers would learn from this train wreck of an idea and be more cautious when planning their next stunts. Can you imagine how that train wreck would have played out today, with everyone tweeting and instagramming photos from the disaster? Not a good PR move, I think.

%d bloggers like this: