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Top 10 Harebrained Celebrity PR Stunts That Backfired Spectacularly

by Radu Alexander
fact checked by Jamie Frater

There seems to be no limit to the lengths to which people will go to promote their new ventures. Celebrities seem like a good marketing tool, but they don’t always have a keen understanding of the real world around them. And, as you will see, neither do the PR teams that work with them.

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10 Woody Harrelson Only Wants To Talk About Rampart

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As one of the most active websites in the world, reddit can direct a lot of attention toward a specific person or event. One of its most popular features is interviews called Ask Me Anything (AMA). As the name implies, the interviewee (typically someone notable) answers a wide range of questions covering any and all topics.

When it is done right, it can be a great way for celebs to interact with their fans and drive a ton of interested traffic toward whatever they’re plugging. When it’s done wrong, it turns out like Woody Harrelson’s AMA.

In 2012, Harrelson starred in Rampart, a movie about corruption in the LAPD’s anti-gang unit during the 1990s. He was going through the normal promotional tour when somebody suggested that he do an AMA.

Clearly, Harrelson had no idea what it involved and nobody on his PR team bothered to tell him. Even now, five years later, it is still regarded as the worst AMA in history.

Harrelson’s interview only lasted for about 15 minutes. He answered a smattering of questions and made it clear right off the bat that he was only interested in promoting Rampart. When one user jokingly said that the AMA should be renamed Ask Me Anything About Rampart (AMAAR), Harrelson agreed, saying his time was valuable.

In the end, the only story from the interview that gained some attention had nothing to do with the movie. Instead, it was about a time when Harrelson allegedly crashed a prom after-party, took a girl’s virginity, and never called her back.[1]

9 Guns N’ Roses Proves Dr Pepper Wrong

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The album Chinese Democracy from Guns N’ Roses had one of the longest, most expensive productions in music history. After most of the original members left the band in the mid-1990s following arguments with lead singer Axl Rose, a new lineup started work on the album as early as 1997. A string of delays followed. By the beginning of 2008, Chinese Democracy still hadn’t been released.

In March 2008, soft drink giant Dr Pepper thought they could be the ones to give the band that final push and offered everybody in the United States a free can of Dr Pepper if Chinese Democracy was released in 2008.

It looked like a safe bet. The last Guns N’ Roses album had been released 15 years earlier, and the band had recently missed another announced release date in March 2007. However, the improbable happened: Chinese Democracy was released in November 2008.

The soft drink company found itself in a conundrum. What started out as a little PR stunt resulted in the company possibly having to give away tens of millions of cans of Dr Pepper. Their strategy seemingly involved going along with the giveaway but making it as hard as possible for people to get their sodas.

For a person to get his free can, he had to claim a coupon from a website which was available for only 24 hours. Many people, however, complained that the site was down for most of the day.[2] Even Axl Rose went on to declare the campaign a “complete fiasco” and, at one point, threatened legal action.

8 Bill Cosby Tries To Have A Happy Monday

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Few celebs have had a greater fall from grace than Bill Cosby, currently accused by over 50 women of sexual abuse. In 2014, the general public had just started becoming aware of the allegations.

Cosby had faced some accusations in earlier decades, but he always managed to avoid any serious damage to his image. So perhaps he thought he could weather the storm this time as well.

Cosby or, more likely, his PR team decided it was time to remind everyone why he was America’s favorite dad. His Twitter account posted a picture of the actor tipping his hat with the message “Happy Monday.”

The tweet said, “Go ahead. Meme me!” and linked to a meme generator on Cosby’s website. There, users could pick from a range of stills featuring Cosby’s beloved Cliff Huxtable character, enter a few lines of text, and then share it with the world.

To give you an idea of what they were expecting, the website had some examples that featured Cliff making funny faces with wholesome texts like “#NOMNOMNOM I Love Cookies!,” “Hello Friend!” and “Vegetables? Yuck!”

The actor soon learned that the public had already turned against him as Twitter was instead filled with countless Cosby memes featuring texts like “She can’t say no if she’s unconscious” and “My two favorite things—Jello pudding and rape.”[3] All of these were posted using the hashtag #CosbyMeme, which was started and promoted by Cosby’s own Twitter account before his original post was deleted.

7 Oprah Is Too Good At Selling KFC

Photo credit: ABC News

In 2009, KFC had a new grilled chicken option coming out and was looking for ways to promote it. Who better to turn to than the queen of television herself, Oprah?

The TV presenter plugged the meal on her show and, in true Oprah fashion, announced a massive giveaway. KFC was giving free two-piece meals to all customers. All they had to do was print a coupon and go to any KFC restaurant in the country.

Apparently, nobody on the company’s marketing team had heard of Oprah and they massively underestimated her influence. Over 10 million coupons were printed, and KFC restaurants around the country immediately ran out of supplies.[4]

Some of them tried to improvise by claiming that certain coupon serial numbers were invalid or that the offer was only good for the first 100 customers. Neither claim was true and, besides bad PR, opened up KFC to lawsuits for breach of contract. The company stopped the campaign entirely after two days with 4.5 million coupons honored.

In an attempt to quell demand prior to canceling the promotion outright, KFC announced that the offer would not be available on the upcoming Mother’s Day. Quick to kick them while they’re down, rival El Pollo Loco offered to redeem all remaining six million coupons on Mother’s Day at their restaurants.

6 Ashanti Wants To Kill You

Photo credit: MoniqueTatum

In 2008, R & B singer Ashanti released a single from her new album, The Declaration. Titled “The Way That I Love You,” the song was about a woman getting revenge on the man who had cheated on her. In the music video, she actually kills him. So, naturally, her PR team decided that murder would be a good theme for the entire campaign surrounding the single.

The marketing strategy featured a two-pronged attack, with both ideas equally terrible. First, a fake news clip alleged that the music video had inspired a string of copycat murders. The clip contained memorable scenes, such as the line “Black children will die” written in blood on a wall and a detective identifying the killer as “Commercial Hip-Hop.”

The other stunt involved killer e-cards named gotcha-grams.[5] People received emails from a “detective” claiming that their lives were in danger and asking if they recognized the person in a video.

Clicking on the link sent you to another fake news report about a killer couple on a rampage. It included a scene that took your real name and location and made it look like you were the next victim.

The hoax sparked protests because, as it turns out, people don’t like receiving death threats. Ashanti’s music label quickly went into “No comment” mode, and the singer released a statement claiming that the gotcha-grams were a better alternative to real violence.

5 Taco Bell Wants To Change 50 Cent’s Name

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Taco Bell has a history of being a bit too “relaxed” when it comes to using other people’s intellectual property. In 2009, though, the fast-food chain learned the hard way that, if you plan on using a celebrity for your new marketing stunt, you’d better ask them first.

The company wanted a quick and easy method of promoting its new line of cheap menu items that cost less than a dollar. What better celebrity to endorse this campaign than rapper 50 Cent (real name: Curtis Jackson)?

Taco Bell released a joke letter to national news outlets. The letter was addressed to 50 Cent and asked the rapper to change his name to “79 Cent,” “89 Cent,” or “99 Cent” for a day in exchange for a $10,000 donation to his charity of choice.

As it turned out, Jackson had no idea about the publicity stunt until it had already been picked up by various media outlets. He promptly took Taco Bell to court, arguing that the company was using his name without permission to promote their products as well as damaging his street image by implying that he was affiliated with Taco Bell’s cheap food.

Jackson asked for $4 million in damages, and both parties eventually reached a confidential settlement.[6] It was probably more than $10,000.

4 Yacht Leaks A Fake Sex Tape

Photo credit: The Guardian

Yacht is an American pop band based in Los Angeles. In 2016, they thought that the best way to promote their new music video “I Wanna F—k You Til I’m Dead” was with a fake sex tape.

The band consists of real-life couple Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans. In May 2016, they posted on their Facebook page that they had been hacked. Furthermore, their sex tape had been stolen and released online without their consent. After playing up the role of exploited victims for a bit, the couple announced their intention of getting in front of the scandal by selling the video for $5 on their own website.

Eventually, the video made its way to Pornhub where it was revealed to be a hoax. Yacht quickly admitted the whole story was fiction to promote their new single, and the backlash was heavy and immediate.

People attacked them for exploiting real victims of revenge porn who already face preconceived criticisms such as “they only want attention” and “they shouldn’t have filmed it in the first place.” Even the band’s PR firm, Motormouthmedia, quickly distanced itself from the stunt, making it clear that they were not involved and that they had warned Yacht against doing it.[7]

The band dug its hole even deeper with their first statement on the matter, denying any connection between their stunt and revenge porn. They subsequently released a full apology later, even saying sorry for their first “non-apology.” They stated that they simply “didn’t get it.”

3 Million-Dollar Mystery Fails To Captivate America

The Marvel movies have become well-known for adding small mid-credits scenes that act as teasers for their future films. However, they have nothing on Million Dollar Mystery, an obscure 1987 comedy notable for being director Richard Fleischer’s (Soylent Green, Conan the Destroyer) last feature film and for using a real treasure hunt as a marketing campaign.

The plot of the movie involved a mad dash to find millions of dollars hidden around the country in the vein of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. A White House employee steals four million dollars and goes on the run. He has a heart attack in a roadside diner and, before dying, tells everyone there the location of the first million dollars. They find the million, lose it, and find clues to the next million. This repeats with the second and third million dollars.

Curiously, the last million isn’t even featured in the movie. Instead, during the credits, one of the characters breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience that the last million is real and hidden somewhere in the United States. All they had to do was find the clues to uncover its location.

The million went to a teenager in Bakersfield who deduced that the money was hidden in the Statue of Liberty’s nose.[8] It didn’t really do anything for the movie, though. It grossed only $989,000. The production company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, had to sell the foreign rights to its movie library, closing for good two years later.

2 Brinsley Schwarz Hype Fails To Deliver

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In 1970, English pub rock group Brinsley Schwarz was supposed to be the next big thing. As far as their PR manager Dave Robinson from Famepushers was concerned, their big break would come following their first gig in America.

Brinsley Schwarz was supposed to open for Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service at the Fillmore East in New York City. Robinson went all out on the coverage. He invited over 100 English journalists across the pond to see Brinsley Schwarz play.

They had a private plane stuffed with booze. Touching down in New York, they were greeted by a police motorcade and a fleet of 22 limousines stocked with more booze and pre-rolled joints.[9]

In fact, most journalists got so wasted that they skipped the show and went straight to the hotel. Others were late, and the venue had given away their specially reserved front-row seats. Two limos crashed and never made it to the gig. Only about 10 journalists actually saw Brinsley Schwarz play that night.

The others didn’t miss out on anything good. Originally, Brinsley Schwarz was supposed to arrive in New York three days early. However, they had visa issues due to drug convictions and had to fly to Canada and wait a few days until the problems were resolved.

Brinsley Schwarz arrived in New York the day of the gig and had to play without rehearsal and without their custom sound system. The press coverage back in England was either negative or barely mentioned Brinsley Schwarz at all.

1 Balzac Pioneers PR Stunts Gone Wrong

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Honore de Balzac was a successful French novelist and playwright. He was also a bit of an oddball who drank around 50 cups of coffee each day and had some peculiar ideas regarding marriage. Balzac organized a publicity stunt about 150 years before they became commonplace. This makes him somewhat of a pioneer, even though things didn’t exactly work out for him.

In 1842, Balzac finished his new play, Les Ressources de Quinola. March 19 was opening night at the Odeon Theater in Paris.[10] To generate some buzz, Balzac started the rumor that tickets for the play had completely sold out. He thought this would bring people to the theater in droves, wanting to see what all the excitement was about.

Balzac’s strategy had the opposite effect. When he said the play was sold out, people believed him. So they stayed home, thinking they couldn’t get tickets. Les Ressources de Quinola opened to an almost empty theater.


Read about more ridiculous publicity stunts on 10 Totally Ridiculous PR Disasters and Top 10 Bizarre Government Publicity Stunts.

fact checked by Jamie Frater