David Fine, London
The UK is in the grip of a PR stunt revival. In the last few months weird and wonderful objects – pianos , giant cupcakes and polo lawns – have popped up around the capital; chalk drawings, crop circle art and sniggery spoof products have been deployed to promote an array of brands and services. What is going on? Did I fall asleep and wake up in 1994?
Well no, it’s definitely 2009 and we are experiencing a strange and sobering recession. Some might say that the traditional summer 'Silly Season' is starting early - but I think this trend reflects some important shifts precipitated by the economic climate. The point was brought home to me recently during a multi market pitch for a big brand when our strategic, considered proposal lost out to a picture stunt opportunity of jaw dropping risk and retro credentials.
Stunts are generally cheap - a quick and dirty tactic to grab media attention. Last month saw not one but three pavement art stunts, a great picture is created, then the budget and opportunity runs as surely down the drain as the art in the first rain shower. In tough economic times with less activation spend to go around, clients are surely being drawn to cost effective and (hopefully) high impact solutions.
But the transcience and frivolity of stunts and the resultant phone bashing and finger crossing has always been a concern for thoughtful PRs. Conventional counselling against stunts was the 'what if the Queen dies?' rationale: offsetting the risk of a short term opportunity against a stronger media story that dominates the news agenda. However, the rise of the internet has undoubtedly changed this. With on-line newspapers and blogs desperate for interesting and quirky pictorial content, it is increasingly irrelevant if your story makes the print news pages when you can hit targeted, self-selecting niche audiences.
Most important is the sense of humour and fun inherent in these stunts. Even the most cynical marketeer cannot help but smile and join the water-cooler chatter when brands release their 'limited edition' extensions like Burger King's ‘Flame’ or Tango's ‘Fake Tan-go’
Yes, a silly story is welcome relief in troubled times, but it is humour’s potential for virality and social media engagement that is the real commercial opportunity here.
Take Sacha Baron Cohen; bestriding the world like a latter-day PT Barnum in leather hot-pants as Bruno. The image of Bruno’s ass in Eminem’s face made the pages of newspapers the world over - but it was the comments, speculation and sheer presence on social media that proved the awesome power of humour driven on-line engagement. By eschewing traditional interviews in favour of picture stunts at his movie premieres, Bruno created even more entertaining social ammunition for fans to share with their networks. Subtle or original it was not, but a pop culture phenomenon was created and Baron Cohen is laughing all the way to the bank.
Of course, relying on stunts is not strategic, brand building activity and might go against the grain.
But the power of a brand to raise a smile and be engaging cannot be underestimated in this environment. Does reading about Ikea’s Flatpack the Opera (“expressing the agony and ecstasy of visiting the world’s favourite furniture store”) make me want to rush out and buy a self assembly cupboard? Not really, but it does make me feel warmer and more inclined towards a brand that displays such wry self knowledge. And as a world of potential consumers wait - desperate to be engaged and entertained - you can be sure there are many amongst them that will.