Some brands, bless their hearts, tend to believe that they need to get out there in the real world and interact with people—to show people what they’re all about. Other brands venture out into the streets because they dream of harnessing the low cost and high potential value of earned-media coverage. Free publicity is always good, right?
Sometimes, this results in cute, harmless stunts that do nothing more than amuse people and perhaps achieve some measure of brand recognition.
Sometimes it results in ill-advised activities that leave people just scratching their heads as they turn away.
And sometimes, it results in ideas so bad that it’s difficult to believe people with functioning brain cells not only signed off on them but actually thought they would reflect well on the brand in question.
The following collection of takin’-it-to-the-streets marketing stunts in APAC—gathered from our own archives and other sources—ranges from as recently as yesterday to all the way back in 2008. The examples come from several markets in the region, although Singapore is strongly represented. And the examples span the gamut from mildly amusing to weird to stupid to absolutely reprehensible. Got an example we missed? Please clue us in. Enjoy.
Remember that time…a public-speaking academy sent clowns to hang around primary schools and interact with kids?
If you missed it, yesterday (September 20) we reported that Speech Academy Asia had sent men in clown makeup to loiter outside of primary schools, and even (according to media reports) talk to children—asking them for personal information such as their phone numbers. Some reports even claim the clowns offered children money to follow them, although a spokesman for the company has denied this. According to The Straits Times, police investigations are underway.
If you had stopped at “men in clown makeup”, that would have been enough to tell us that this was a bad idea. Adding “loiter around schools” raises it to the level of sheer stupidity. And adding “interact with children” (in any way), makes this an all-time marketing faceplant—a shoo-in for the Marketing Stunt Hall of Shame.
Remember that time…a guy in a bear suit alarmed the community and got Philips in hot water with the police?
Back in 2010, Singapore residents became alarmed after a video of what looked like a bear rooting around in dustbins in a residential area went viral. Animal rights groups, the police, the media, and a crew from Wildlife Reserves Singapore—reportedly armed with a tranquiliser gun—went out in search of the animal. But then it was revealed that it was a guy in a suit, which was somehow a stunt meant to promote Philips shavers. Unfortunately, our reporting from the time doesn’t make it clear how this was meant to promote shavers (presumably the hirsute fellow was searching for something to help with his grooming?). The Secret Little Agency and Philips apologised for the stunt, but our story ends by noting that the police were investigating whether the stunt was a public nuisance that breached Section 268 of the Penal Code, which could lead to a S$1,000 fine. We can’t confirm whether anyone was eventually fined, and the video seems to have been lost to history. But hey, the stunt made international news!
Note: This is not the only time TSLA appears in this list, nor the only time it appears for sending out a person dressed as an animal: See the item about a roaming cat-human hybrid below.
Remember that time…people with big pills atop their heads did a little play minimising the seriousness of cancer?
In September 2013 in Singapore, AXA Life Insurance staged some street skits to promote a new insurance offering providing holistic cancer care, including counselling services. Though the product sounded good, the promotion was an astonishing fail—one of the most inexplicable and offensive things we’ve seen, which is saying a lot. We observed at the time that “30-second skits in public places, by young actors wearing hardhats and giant plastic pills on their heads, do not seem to strike the appropriate tone” when it comes to cancer treatment.
In retrospect, that’s a massive understatement, because the script of the play is not only awkward and out of place, but truly abhorrent. The doctor figure literally tells the distraught cancer patient “you need to relax” because “cancer is not the end of the world”. Then he advises her to look on the bright side because she can change her hairstyle by wearing various wigs. Finally, he concludes by telling her that “talking is good medicine for cancer,” which, for the record, it is not (though it may be helpful). Within 30 seconds, the woman comes around, and seems to decide that having cancer surely won’t be that bad after all!
Why they have pills on their heads is never explained. In the video, which we have preseverd for posterity, the reactions of the unsuspecting bystanders subjected to the skit are everything. Their puzzled expression show how the brand achieved absolutely nothing with the stunt, because no one had the faintest idea what was happening. But all things considered, it’s probably lucky for the brand that it failed to make much of an impression.
Remember that time…a cat-human hybrid rode the trains in Singapore, and it had nothing to do with Cats the musical?
In February 2020, a person in feline makeup and costume was spotted riding the MRT and using a Singtel payphone booth in Singapore. Despite all appearances, this was not a promo for a stage or screen version of the musical Cats. Instead, it was a stunt to get attention for Circles.Life, a Singapore telco. Along with The Secret Little Agency, which seems to have a thing for people in animal suits (see the item about a bear above), the brand decided that the cat would be a good demonstration of Circles.Life’s network coverage, because cats “can get into every nook and cranny, like our network”, a spokesperson told Campaign.
Remember that time…KFC made a jolly little boat to deliver chicken to flood victims?
In 2017, KFC’s Philippines YouTube channel posted a video of the cutest amphibious vehicle you ever saw bringing some fried chicken to a lovely woman who, at 69, has trouble getting around her perpetually flooded village. The woman and her fellow residents go on to profess their thanks to the brand for this treat.
“It’s not any brand’s obligation to solve world hunger or provide homes for unfortunate people,” we wrote at the time. “But if you’re going to helicopter in—or float in on a precious little boat—and take promotional value out of a group of people, at least you could try to give more than a few hundred dollars worth of free food in return.”
Perhaps the saddest part? As we learned through Ogilvy, the agency involved in the stunt, the Yum Brands had been supporting charitable efforts in the Philippines for many years. But this one video created the impression that it only cared about earning praise and earned-media coverage for “staged bullshit”, as one commenter put it.
Remember that time…an agency sent 100 child-sized coffins to media companies?
In 2011, an Indonesian advertising and communication company called Buzz & Co caused an uproar when it sent about 100 child-sized coffins to media companies and commercial offices. Each coffin, with an interior length of about 30 to 40 inches, contained flowers and a note with a different number and the inscription www.restinpeacesoon.com. The sender was listed as ‘Rest in peace soon’.
As we reported at the time, the number proved to be a passcode for the website, and the whole distasteful tactic was a publicity stunt for the launch of a book entitled Rest in Peace Advertising: The Power of Word of Mouth Marketing. Buzz & Co CEO Sumardy Ma was subsequently arrested, and the company’s office at Senayan Trade Center in South Jakarta was raided.
We wonder whether a chapter about this incident got added to the book.
Remember that time…Uber used a giant tissue packet to ‘chope’ a parking spot?
‘Choping’ is a uniquely Singaporean practice of reserving a seat for dining at an outdoor hawker centre by placing (most often) a tissue packet on the table as you go and gather your food. The term is so popular that the city’s restaurant-booking service adopted it as its name, subsequently spreading the term to several markets across the region. In 2017, as we reported, Uber Asia made a giant tissue packet and choped a parking spot, as part of an Asia-wide campaign to address traffic problems—the idea being that if you take an Uber, you don’t need to worry about parking. Facebook posts about the stunt ended up being discussed on local news and traffic update sites.
Remember that time…some poor souls had to roll an inflatable pineapple all over Singapore?
As part of a campaign to market the opening of a new Caltex station in Singapore’s Jurong West, a 2.5 metre-high inflatable fruit was rolled around the island in January 2020. The stunt alluded to a Hokkien tradition where residents bless a new home by rolling a pineapple into the house. Pushed by agency staffers (who, we can only assume, must have done something very naughty), the fruit made its way through Tampines Central, Changi City Point, and East Coast Park before passing through Singapore’s central business district via the Helix Bridge past Marina Bay Sands, through to Raffles Green, Bugis Street and Orchard Road. The agency, VMLY&R, claims the fruity tactic yielded more than 170,000 views and 32,500 social-media likes during its 24-hour journey. See more pictures with our original coverage.
Remember that time…KFC ‘kidnapped’ its own Colonel during a presser?
In 2017, KFC held a press event to introduce a fancy ordering kiosk and an ordering app in Hong Kong. The video of the event (above) is in Cantonese, but even the fluent among us were puzzled as to why the brand’s beloved, friendly Colonel (or a guy in a Colonol mask) was laughing in supervillain fashion and making ominous threats about hacking and identity theft.
Here’s a partial translation of his diabolical monologue: “Hong Kong citizens beware, we will hack into KFC’s system and Facebook page whenever we like. We can be anybody, speaking in any voice…our people are everywhere…it could be anyone right beside you.”
At about one minute into the video, another character in a Colonel mask comes on stage and ‘kidnaps’ the brand’s Hong Kong CEO, Alan Chan. Don’t worry though: he returns—apparently unharmed—at about the 3:15 mark.
The event was intended to introduce a Facebook contest that involved some decoding challenges. And as we observed at the time, the brand probably wanted to earn tech cred by referring to the hacking group Anonymous and the popular-at-the-time TV show Mr Robot, which was all about hacking and corporate espionage. But we’re not sure a hacker theme is a great idea when you’re trying to get people to download a new app.
Remember that time…a Hong Kong mobile network annoyed a bunch of commuters in Hong Kong by blocking their path?
In a 2011 ‘flash mob’ designed to promote its 4G LTE service, CSL had three groups of actors wearing grey business suits converge and partially obstruct a busy pedestrian pathway starting at 8:15 one morning in Hong Kong’s Central district. An actor held a sign with the tagline: ‘With 4G LTE, everything else seems slow’. The same sequence was repeated at noon just in case the morning event had failed to annoy any nearby office workers. The brand’s marketing officer at the time told Campaign that the intent was to demonstrate in a “physical sense that everything in life is slower without 4G”. But we fear people may have taken away a more negative impression of the brand.
Remember that time…Cambodia Beer got a bunch of young people to make music by blowing on their bottles?
In 2015, Cambodia Beer staged a ‘flash mob’ (which was the fashion among brands at the time), in which a group of young people puffed out an original ditty using wind instruments fashioned from the brand’s bottles. The campaign represented “a new way of talking to consumers in Cambodia,” according to the agency, ComZone. “We are calling them not to consume, but to play with the brand, which is a next level of communication.”
Remember that time…Pizza Hut tried to capture reindeer to deliver its food in Japan?
In 2016, Pizza Hut ‘announced‘ and then ‘called off‘ a ‘plan’ to harness reindeer to help it deliver orders in the harsh winter in Hokkaido, northern Japan. As the video above shows, the animals apparently proved too strong-willed to train, charging past customers’ houses into fields. The pizzas also took a beating. As a substitute, the company announced plans to use a fleet of scooters decorated to look like reindeer.
As our use of ‘scare quotes’ above indicates, it was of course highly doubtful that Domino’s was ever really going to use the reindeer. But the company played the whole scenario with a straight face, and the initiative, devised by Momentum Japan, succeeded in making pizza considerably more exciting than usual.
Remember that time…a passel of prawns invaded a Guangzhou shopping mall?
According to our 2013 story, 200 ‘prawns’ invaded a Guangzhou shopping mall one weekend as part of a campaign that started with them opening social-media accounts on Sina and Tencent Weibo. Those posts revealed that the marine arthropods planned to get together on March 23, setting up suspense for the event. Leo Burnett wanted to emphasise that every Four Seas prawn cracker is made from real prawns—a point the prawns made by removing their shells to reveal their crackery insides.
Remember that time…a vitamin brand sent a snake person to the business district in Singapore?
Since people in animal costumes is certainly a theme in this roundup, here’s one more. Sorry, we have only a grainy photo and the scant information we published in 2008:
Multivitamin supplement Berocca has launched a guerrilla stunt in Singapore’s busy Central Business District (CBD) to promote its latest Tropical and Citrus flavours. Developed by JWT Singapore, the stunt targets executives and plays on the office environment as a jungle with ‘animals’, including foxes, rats, snakes and vultures, that can harm one’s career. The animals walk about in business attire while handing out name cards. Berocca’s brand ambassadors are also on hand to pass out samples while promoting the benefits of the supplement to help busy professionals stay alert and awake in their offices.