Follow TV Tropes


Publicity Stunt

Go To
"Prepare for the end ... the end of high prices!"

When it comes to selling more products, fictional (also real) businesses are always looking for ways to promote themselves. One common route is to set up a scenario, usually one that seems plausible in the fictional world, and tie it into an in-universe product, service, or business. The goal of the stunt usually isn't immediately apparent to in-universe observers, but more Genre Savvy characters will see right through it.

From the villains, maybe you'll have a Corrupt Corporate Executive who is willing to put other people in jeopardy for the sake of making more sales on a product offering relief. Or maybe there's a business which wants to exploit the heroes' crime-busting or villain fighting abilities to attract attention. Given to other characters, it could be a wacky business promotion stunt or part of Viral Marketing, or maybe it's just an average nobody looking for attention.

These are all too common in real life. However, keep in mind that just because a company does a crazy stunt to promote their product, let's say by drinking Red Bull while skydiving, doesn't mean it fits this trope.

In an ironic twist, it is possible for the stunt itself to overshadow what it is promoting thanks to the media, resulting in Misaimed Fandom.

Supertrope of Fake Danger Gambit. Not to be confused with Some Nutty Publicity Stunt, which is when characters believe or pretend that something crazy that happens is a publicity stunt. See also Viral Marketing and Ratings Stunt, which is when a series tries to boost its ratings by doing something completely different.

General spoiler warning for some of the examples below as this can be a way to create a Red Herring, or even a Twist Ending.


    open/close all folders 

    Comic Strips 
  • The Monday 26 July 2010 strip of Dilbert has Dilbert's nebulous company arrange to showcase their newest military product with a light show in New York Harbor. Wally is put in charge of the demonstration. The result is a Noodle Incident that New Yorkers call "the Stump of Liberty."

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In 6 Underground, the main character is shown helping out at a refugee camp, but only to the extent that it helps his public image. After the camp is gassed by an air strike, he decides to take a more proactive role — by faking his own death so he can assassinate the dictator who ordered the air strike.
  • The billionaire Oliver Warbucks adopts the orphan Annie for a week in Annie (1982) to improve his public image.
  • In Beach Blanket Bingo, the agent of the singer Sugar Kane promotes her album by having a Stunt Double skydive out of an airplane. Later in the film, Sugar mistakenly thinks that Eric von Zipper kidnapping her is another one of these publicity stunts.
  • Catch Us If You Can: While filming a meat commercial, model Dinah absconds on a whim with stuntman Steve and takes a road trip with him through Britain. Ad executive Zissell tells everyone that Steve kidnapped Dinah to drum up even more publicity for meat.
  • Horror Of The Zombies starts with two models on a motor cruiser staging a publicity stunt to stir up interest in the boat itself.
  • In The Leopard Man, a public relations man rents a black leopard to promote his girlfriend Kiki's nightclub act. However, a rival performer scares the leopard and it escapes.
  • The climactic building climb of Safety Last! is an attempt by Lloyd's character to drum up publicity for the store he works on.
  • The Arc Reactor that powers the Stark Industries factory in Iron Man was dismissed by Obadiah Stane as a publicity stunt "to shut the hippies up". While it does provide clean energy to the building, it was never cost-effective enough for mass production until Tony Stark refined and minimized the technology while held hostage by the Ten Rings.
  • In Shredder Orpheus, Hades turns Orpheus's quest to get Eurydice back into a PTR game show called "Don't Look Back" and enjoys a substantial ratings boost in the process. He does it again with the Eurydice Door Show, making a show of Orpheus's demise and post-death reunion with Eurydice.

  • Objects go missing in the September issue of Calendar Mysteries with little sneaker toys left behind. When the kid heroes investigate, they find that it's actually the plot of a bunch of teenager to promote their newly formulated sneakers.
  • Chocoholic Mysteries: Much of Pirate Plot revolves around one, starting where a trio of "pirates" pop up on Lake Michigan, board people's yachts, do a little show, and then sail away again. The grand finale is when they appear on a massive yacht belonging to actor Marco Spear (who'd recently starred in the movie Young Blackbeard), in part to draw attention to his next movie, which he's secretly been preparing for in Warner Pier. The only problem is, he didn't realize that some of the people helping out on the stunt were criminals, who would kidnap him for ransom.
  • In the Encyclopedia Brown story "The Case of the Missing Statue", a statue is stolen just before of the premiere of Linda Wentworth's film about a statue that is stolen. Turns out the whole thing is a setup to promote said film.
  • In Jennifer Government, the events of the novel are set off when Nike tries to drum up press for their new line of shoes by arranging random shootings in their stores.
  • Rebuild World:
    • Discussed when the villain Zelmo realizes that Akira's Powered Armor is being moved by someone else like People Puppets; he assumes that this is some stunt by the armor's manufacturer to show their suit making a slum kid badass. His assumption is proven wrong after he tries to use jamming smoke and it fails to stop the aid Akira receives from his Virtual Sidekick.
    • After Akira beats a Mini-Mecha on foot in a David Versus Goliath scenario and footage of it goes viral, the company selling that model of mech goes into a panic and hires Yanigisawa to set up one of these. They have the mech upgraded, have Badass Driver Nelia wired into it with her Brain/Computer Interface, and arrange for her to fight alongside Akira, with the objective being to outshine him and redeem the mech's reputation. It works almost perfectly since Akira is severely outgunned in said battle, but because Akira gets a spectacular Coup de Grāce, they have to bribe Akira to delete that part of his battle record to make the stunt a success.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrested Development episode "Key Decisions": GOB tries to boost his magic career by breaking out of a prison in 24 hours. Before entering he swallows an escape key, but his plan doesn't work out in the way he thought it would.
  • iCarly: In the episode "iMeet Fred", Fred quits making videos after Freddie says he doesn't find the latter's show very funny. When the gang visits Fred to apologize, Fred states he only pretended to be upset in order to get more views.
  • Victorious: When Tori gets a record deal, the record label asks her to do things like wear ridiculous outfits and act out in public. She's told that this will boost her profile. Of course, she can't tell anyone what she's doing, so her friends assume the fame is going to her head.
  • Arthur Carlson drops turkeys from a helicopter in WKRP in Cincinnati to promote his radio station.
    • In the second episode, MR. Carlson is looking for a cheap publicity stunt to help get the word out over WKRP's change in format from adult contemporary to rock & roll. When a group of senior citizens show up to protest the change, Andy notifies the local news media, telling Carlson that the protest going on is publicity - and it's free.

    Visual Novels 
  • In the second Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth game the first case involves an attempted assassination of the President of Zheng Fa. It turns out it was engineered by the president himself with one of his bodyguards, where the president hoped that pulling an Assassin Outclassin' would boost his flagging approval ratings. However the plan was complicated by two things. One, the bodyguard uses the faked assassination plot as an opportunity to kill his superior, who he is envious of. Two, the Big Bad of the game, who actually gave the bodyguard the idea of the fake assassination stunt, hires an assassin to kill the president for real.

    Western Animation 
  • Arthur: In "Binky Rules!", the manager of a band called Binky decides that graffiti-ing "BINKY RULES!" all over the school would be a good publicity stunt. However the character Binky gets in trouble when the school janitor believes he's responsible for the graffiti.
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle: In a Bullwinkle's Corner segment spoofing the Longfellow poem Excelsior, Bullwinkle climbs a mountain and holds a banner reading the titular statement, which doubles as a pun on the wood product of the same name.
    Rocky: "Pray tell me," said a mountaineer. "What in the world are you doing here? And why you climb up here so high just to give that silly cry?"
    Bullwinkle: Excelsior?
    Rocky: That's the one!
    Bullwinkle: The answer came both quick and blunt: "It's just a advertising stunt. I represent Smith, Jones & Jakes, a lumber company that makes... EXCELSIOR!"
  • The Simpsons: In "Lisa the Skeptic" it turns out that the "angel skeleton" that Lisa discovers was actually planted there by the owners of the mall opening up in order to drum up interest.
    Lisa: Wait a second... you planted a phony skeleton for me to find! This was all a big hoax!
    Businessman: Heh heh heh, not a hoax; a publicity stunt!

    Real Life 
  • Prior to the 1915 film A Fool There Was coming out, the studio had a press conference where they hyped Theda Bara as an "exotic" Arabian actress. They later intentionally leaked that the whole thing was a hoax. Theda Bara was actually American-born and from Ohio, though many thought she was European.
  • Florence Lawrence was involved in one of film's first publicity stunts. In 1909 a rumor spread that Florence had been killed by a car. After a lot of media attention, posters were placed in newspapers saying "We Nail A Lie". The ads were advertisements for The Broken Oath, an upcoming picture that Florence Lawrence starred in.
  • The Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a substitute biology teacher was tried for teaching evolution in school, was set up to give general publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee. In the end the accused teacher was given a $100 fine.
  • The 2009 Balloon Boy hoax. To make a long story short, a young boy named Falcon goes missing and his parents claim he's on a giant gas balloon that just went off. When the balloon lands and the boy's not there, they discover the boy hiding in the attic. Turns out the parents were planning to make a reality TV show and decided this stunt would get them the publicity they needed. Sure they got publicity, but they also faced jail terms and large fees. However in recent times, new info has surfaced courtesy of Internet Historian reveals that the parents had to plead guilty or the mother would face deportation while the "reality TV show" aspect was just a slip of the tongue on a sleep-deprived Falcon's part while not fully understanding what he was actually saying, implying that the whole interview was taken out of context to force a narrative that people would eat up.
  • The infamous Boston Mooninite Scare from 2007. Someone at [adult swim] had the brilliant idea to promote the then red hot show Aqua Teen Hunger Force upcoming movie by planting several hundred LED light up displays featuring the Mooninites in Boston and the surrounding area. Unfortunately, the displays were mistaken for improvised explosive devices by the local police and fire department. The resulting bad publicity led to then-head of Cartoon Network Jim Samples stepping down in favor of Stuart Snyder, with the incident and him credited with starting an Audience-Alienating Era for the network that lasted several years.
  • Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch in Wales was given its Overly Long Name to bring more publicity (and hopefully more commerce and tourism as well) to the small village.
  • The infamous London stunt that Capcom pulled to promote Resident Evil 5. Long story-short, they scattered fake dismembered body parts around town, offering prizes to people who found them. Considering what the average reaction to finding a realistic-looking severed head would be, you can imagine it didn't go smoothly: people were freaked out, police were called, and the organizers were soon chased off and left thanking their lucky stars they weren't charged. Worse still, is that many of the body parts went missing and were never accounted for, with Capcom making the downright bizarre decision to point out they weren't safe to consume as they were made from real chicken parts.
  • EA Games pulled off a publicity stunt for Dante's Inferno by having a group of people stage a fake protest during E3 2009, with the group purportedly from a church in Ventura County and holding signs denouncing the game as being sacrilegious and offensive to people's beliefs, even going so far as to calling EA the Antichrist.note  EA spokesman Tammy Scachter later confirmed that the "protest" was indeed staged, though the admission only served to further add to the controversy as a number of Christian bloggers deemed the phony protest to be in poor taste.
  • The developers of the infamous pornographic video game Custer's Revenge sought the attention of women's and Native American groups by staging a preview of Custer to them, only for said groups to realise that they were manipulated to witness what amounts to a (technologically primitive) simulation of sexual violence. To quote the tech magazine InfoWorld, it was better for the concerned groups to "speak out rather than remain silent", leading to protests and the game being discontinued.