As a viral marketing stunt for a beer brand, Coors Light's "Search + Rescue" campaign in Toronto fizzled fast.
The summer promotion, as explained to New York-based guerrilla marketing specialist Sam Ewen, involved placing mysterious briefcases bearing the beer-maker's logo around major urban centres. One such attaché containing clues to a prize was chained to the fence at a major downtown intersection.
That was all the set-up Ewen needed to hear.
"Let me guess. That went swimmingly well?" he said.
It was a self-poking joke.
- Coors Light marketing fail enrages Toronto commuters
- Coors Light promotion scare shuts down major Toronto intersection
- 2 arrested in Boston marketing stunt turned bomb scare
- When ad campaigns go bad
Seven years have passed since the marketing CEO's New York agency, Interference Inc., created a guerrilla marketing plan for the animated series Aqua Teen Hunger Force that inadvertently triggered a terrorism scare in Boston.
For that 2007 campaign for the Cartoon Network, the agency hired locals in 10 U.S. cities to place electronic light boards around town featuring Cartoon Network characters. But the wired devices spotted in Beantown were mistaken for bombs.
The Coors Light situation in Toronto prompted a similar police response. Streetcars were diverted during rush hour on Monday.
"They should have learned from me that it was not a good idea," Ewen said.
To avoid a lawsuit, Cartoon Network paid $1 million to the Boston Police Department and another $1 million to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Molson Coors Canada's head of corporate affairs, Gavin Thompson, did not confirm whether the beer-maker has been fined, but told CBC News in an email the company took "proactive steps to ensure that situations like the one today would not happen," including a plan "to fence-gate locations like transit corridors where the cases might be perceived as a threat."
While Molson Coors works with Toronto police and the Toronto Transit Commission to investigate how things went awry, here's a look at some other guerrilla marketing campaigns that fell flat:
A Snapple meltdown in Union Square
A Guinness World Record attempt in 2005 to promote Snapple's new line of frozen treats by erecting a 7.62-metre-tall popsicle turned into a sticky mess when the giant pink block melted much faster than expected under the New York sun. Snapple was hoping its kiwi-strawberry-flavoured confection would become the world's largest popsicle, setting a record with a solid marketing move. Instead, the stunt flooded Union Square with 1.75 tons of melting juice, with the liquid gushing out of a truck that was meant to haul the giant popsicle to the area. Pedestrians fled as city workers hosed the area down.
"It just covered Union Square in this horrible sticky substance and the fire department had to be called in," Ewen said.
A grave concern for Dr Pepper
Cadbury Schweppes, the British manufacturer of the soft drink Dr Pepper announced a contest to find a gold coin worth as much as $1 million in 2007. What began as a treasure hunt raised fears that the 347-year-old historic Old Granary Burial Ground would be desecrated. Among the 5,000 bodies resting at the grounds are American Revolutionary patriots Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Boston authorities reportedly did not know about the contest ahead of time, but began to suspect something was amiss when a crowd of contestants began gathering at the cemetery gates.
A spokesman for Cadbury Schweppes quickly offered an apology, conceding "[t]he coin should never have been placed in such a hallowed site."
CEO's identity-theft challenge
LifeLock CEO Todd Davis practically asked for it in 2007 when he advertised his social security number on billboards and on TV, apparently to display his confidence in his ID theft protection company. Instead, the publicity stunt backfired. Fraudsters stole Davis's identity 13 times in one year. The Federal Trade Commission also fined LifeLock $12 million in 2010 for deceptive advertising, as the company had claimed to offer a 100 per cent guarantee its services would safeguard subscribers from any identity theft.
Sony's 'Fony' street art campaign
In a bid to woo its consumer demographic of hip "urban nomads" to pick up its handheld PlayStation Portable gaming console, Sony's ad agency commissioned street artists to paint graffiti-style advertisements in major urban centres in 2005. But the Japanese electronics giant's transparent attempt to connect with youth through graffiti culture backfired, with the PSP's target audience defacing the ads with their own counter-culture messages, and re-branding the company name to "Fony" in some spraypainted messages.
"It was really co-opting the street culture of graffiti and urban art, and a lot of people got really, really offended by it because they felt like they were trying to co-opt youth culture for corporate value," Ewen said.
Snickers Twitter furor
In 2012, an ad campaign promoting Snickers chocolate bars in the U.K. was in danger of running afoul of the Office of Fair Trade after it came to light that celebrities were making money by making it appear as if their Twitter accounts were hacked, then plugging the candy bar in a followup tweet. The British celebrity Katie Price, for example, tweeted an out-of-character message to her thousands of followers analyzing the Eurozone crisis. She then followed up with a photo of herself with a Snickers bar and the candy's tagline, "You're not you when you're hungry."
The U.K.'s Advertising Standards Authority investigated whether the publicity stunt was in breach of rules dictating that marketing must be clearly communicated as such. The Snickers campaign was ultimately cleared, but fans of the stars who participated in the campaign were reportedly miffed.
A hefty fine for spreading 'Peace, Love & Linux'
One thing the brilliant minds at IBM didn't compute when they launched a sidewalk-graffiti campaign? How to properly get the advertisements to wash off the pavement. The supposedly biodegradable chalk stencils that emblazoned sidewalks and walls in San Francisco were meant to hype up the Linux operating system. But the "Peace, Love & Linux" slogans and symbols proved much more difficult to remove than expected, requiring high-pressure blasts of water and baking soda scrubs to remove ads that remained for months.
The city ordered IBM to pay a $100,000 fine and about $20,000 in cleanup costs.
"The other reality was, how many people even in a big city really are decision-makers when it comes to buying a Linux server?" Ewen said. "Was that campaign worth skirting the law for?"