When ad campaigns go bad

For every guerrilla marketing success, there have been cringe-worthy failures in which the anticipated reaction was far from realized. Here, we offer a roundup of notable guerrilla campaigns gone wrong.
Authorities arrested performance artists Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, who had been hired to place these devices around Boston to promote the show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. ((Todd Vanderlin/Associated Press))

"It's a helicopter, and it's coming this way. It's flying something behind it, I can't quite make it out. It's a large banner and it says, uh, 'Happy… Thanks… giving! From ... W ... K ... R... P!' No parachutes yet. Can't be skydivers. I can't tell just yet what they are, but — oh my God, Johnny, they're turkeys! Johnny, can you get this? Oh, they're plunging to the Earth right in front of our eyes! One just went through the windshield of a parked car! Oh, the humanity! The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement! Not since the Hindenburg tragedy has there been anything like this!"

So goes the play-by-play parody delivered by fictional reporter Les Nessman on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. In the 1978 episode, Arthur Carlson, the manager of a fledgling radio station, drops a load of live turkeys from a helicopter in a Thanksgiving Day promotion gone horribly awry.

"As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly," a stunned Carlson says in the aftermath — a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of guerrilla advertising, indeed.

What is guerrilla marketing?

Stunt promotions have long been used as a means of generating publicity, but in 1984, Jay Conrad Levinson refined the concept and coined the term "guerrilla marketing."

He describes the technique as "achieving conventional goals, such as profits and joy, with unconventional methods, such as investing energy instead of money."

In some cases of the practice, companies have succeeded spectacularly with their alternative ad campaigns, generating notable buzz. Take for example the state of New Mexico, which in 2005 introduced talking urinal cakes to help lower high rates of drinking and driving.

Said the deodorant cakes: "Hey there big guy, having a few drinks? Then listen up. Think you've had one too many? Then it's time to call a cab or a sober friend for a ride home. It sure is safer and a hell of a lot cheaper than a DWI. Make the smart choice tonight: Don't drink and drive. Remember, your future is in your hand."

The cheeky campaign gained widespread attention, and bar patrons admitted the novelty gadgets, which at first proved startling, did in fact make them think twice about getting behind the wheel.

For every success, however, there have been cringe-worthy failures in which the anticipated reaction was far from what resulted. Here, we offer a roundup of notable guerrilla campaigns gone wrong.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force

The mysterious appearance of nearly 40 battery-operated LED signs in Boston's public spaces rattled citizens in January 2007. Fearing a co-ordinated bomb attack, police shut down highways and bridges as authorities inspected the harmless devices — which in fact had been planted as part of the Cartoon Network's promotional campaign for its show Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Authorities arrested performance artists Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, who had been hired to place the signs around the city. Inexplicably, Berdovsky and Stevens upon their release would only answer questions about the evolution of different hairstyles.

"What was it like to spend last night in jail?" a frustrated reporter asked at a news conference.

"That's not a hair question, I'm sorry," Berdovsky replied.

Turner Broadcasting paid $2 million US to the U.S. Homeland Security Department and state and local authorities. The charges against Berdovsky and Stevens were dropped in exchange for an apology and community service.

'Eggs, CBS and lasers'

CBS complemented its traditional advertising strategy in 2006 with a large egg-focused campaign. ((CBS/Associated Press))
In September 2006, CBS teamed up with the company Eggfusion to print the CBS logo on 35 million fresh eggs.

Taglines on the eggs included "CSI — crack the case on CBS," "SHARK hard-boiled drama," and "CBS Mondays make 'em go over easy."

The oddball pairing of eggs with TV proved quizzical to many. The satirical publication The Onion lampooned the idea, quoting Joe Varick, a fictional marketing executive, who noted, "Makes perfect sense. Eggs, CBS and lasers. It's what we in the marketing biz call 'synergy.' "

In another of The Onion's faux street interviews, a cocktail waitress said of the idea: "So, not having my food shot with lasers is no longer a choice I get to make?"

'This was the least-intended outcome'

In April 2006, Paramount Pictures teamed up with the Los Angeles Times in a bid to promote the action film Mission Impossible: III. The promotion involved placing small music boxes inside 4,500 coin-operated newspaper boxes that, when opened, would play the film's catchy theme song. The premise: Turn an everyday news rack experience into an extraordinary mission.

The red music boxes, however, were not well hidden and proved perplexing to nervous customers, many of whom called authorities suggesting the newspaper boxes might be rigged with explosives.

"This was the least-intended outcome," John O'Loughlin, Times's senior vice-president for planning, told the newspaper. "We weren't expecting anything like this."

John Hancock, Sam Adams, Dr. Pepper?

Boston's Granary Burying Ground, founded in 1660, is the resting place of notable U.S. figures including John Hancock, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. In 2007, soft drink maker Dr. Pepper chose the historic site as the location to bury a gold coin worth $10,000 US for a treasure hunt.

City officials learned of the contest and closed off the cemetery, spurring Dr. Pepper to end the contest and award the prize in a random draw.

"It absolutely is disrespectful," the city's parks commissioner, Toni Pollak, told the Boston Globe. "It's an affront to the people who are buried there, our nation's ancestors."

You suck, Judd Apatow

"MY MOM ALWAYS HATED YOU SARAH MARSHALL," read the hand-scrawled posters for the Judd Apatow 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Other simpler posters read: "I'm SO over you Sarah Marshall" and "You DO look fat in those jeans Sarah Marshall."

The offbeat posters didn't bear any of the traditional marks of a movie poster — no cast of actors, no "coming to theatres" tagline. Some Sarah Marshalls in the U.S. wondered whether a personal campaign had been launched against them.

In an interview with National Public Radio, one Sarah Marshall responded that she does not in fact look fat in those jeans. She told radio host Robert Siegel, "I put up a poster that said, 'You suck, Judd Apatow,' in the same way as 'You suck, Sarah Marshall' posters are up — just to give him a little taste of his own medicine."

Another Sarah Marshall recalled, "My boyfriend just told me that he was at work, and he looked out the window and a taxi cab drove by and it said, 'I'm so over you, Sarah Marshall.' And he says he thought he was hallucinating. And then another friend of mine called me from Los Angeles and said he almost drove the car off the road because he looked up and saw the billboard. And he called me right away, and he said 'What did you do now?' "

Fony Sony

Eddie Torres walks by ads for Sony PlayStation Portable consoles in a gritty north Philadelphia neighbourhood in December 2005. ((Rusty Kennedy/Associated Press))
In 2005, Sony launched a grassroots graffiti ad campaign to promote the release of its new PlayStation Portable device. The company hired local graffiti artists to spray-paint ads depicting cartoonish kids playing with the new video game unit. The ads were featured on the sides of buildings in seven cities across the U.S., including New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Sony came under fire for the campaign from city governments, many of which complained the ads violated their own anti-graffiti initiatives and encouraged vandalism. In San Francisco, local residents and artists took matters into their own hands, defacing many of the designs with anti-Sony sentiments and tagging one such ad with "Fony." Sony defended the campaign, stating the marketing was meant to target the "urban nomad."  

Peace, love and Linux

IBM was caught in 2001 for spray-painting peace signs, hearts and smiling penguins, like the ones seen here on a sidewalk in Chicago's North Side, on street corners in some major U.S. cities. ((Rich Hein/Associated Press))
IBM vexed officials in San Francisco and Chicago when it took its new Linux marketing campaign to the streets in 2001. The computer giant's ad agency stencilled advertisements on street corners throughout both cities. The ads consisted of a blue peace symbol, a heart and a smiling penguin, and were part of the company's "peace, love and Linux" campaign. But officials in both cities frowned upon the stunt, labelling the spray-painted sidewalk tags graffiti — a violation under their city ordinances.

In Chicago, IBM was forced to pay more than $18,000 US to cover the cost of cleaning up the ads, while San Francisco hit the corporation with a $100,000 fine on top of other clean-up fees. IBM wasn't the only one to pay, however. A Chicago man, Ali Morsy, who was hired to spray-paint some of the logos around the city was also charged for his part in the scheme and sentenced to 30 days of community service. IBM's graffiti campaign also ran in Boston and New York City.