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From Fortnite to Jeff Goldblum, here’s how 7 publicity stunts affected readership

January 20, 2020 | By Fran Berkman, Newsroom Engagement Manager – Taboola @franberkman and
Gal Salomon, Marketing Analyst – Taboola @galsalomon

There’s a blackhole in the video game universe. A massive, bare chest Jeff Goldblum is lounging on a London lawn near a bridge. And the golden arches have inverted.

Surely some sort of revelation is at hand!

Oh no wait: It’s just brands going viral.

Inspired by Fortnite’s bold strategy of taking the massively popular game offline for nearly two days to tee up the release of a new virtual world, we decided to investigate several so-called “publicity stunts” to see which ones were the most impactful in generating reader engagement.

To do this, we checked how these campaigns impacted readership about the companies on the Taboola network of news publishers. We’ve seen that successful marketing can often generate significant news coverage and create a viral effect.

Taboola’s data include readership of more than 1,300 US news websites including national, local, and digital-native organizations. The scope of the network offers a broad view of what’s capturing people’s attention.

With that in mind, let’s see which stunts sparked the biggest spikes.

The Fortnite black hole

Fortnite has become one of the rare titles of this generation to transcend gaming to become a cultural phenomenon. Its player base has expanded into the hundreds of millions over the past two years.

Naturally, people totally freaked out when the game’s universe was sucked into a black hole leaving behind only a dark screen and a cryptic string of numbers.

As described by Kotaku’s Riley MacLeod:

“It then, to the internet’s collective shock, stayed that way. Confused players joined forces to decode mysterious numbers, play a hidden minigame, entertain themselves with speculation, and spend more than 35 hours staring at what basically amounts to a screensaver.”

It didn’t take long for people to realize that this was the game’s way of teasing the beginning of a new season and the introduction of a new world for players to shoot to control.

In the meantime, millions of people read news articles about the phenomenon. We saw readership spike more than 10x above its daily average.

International house of what now?

Who doesn’t love IHOP? The food is decadent. The blue roof is iconic. And “Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity” is honestly one of the all-time great names for a menu item.

You could invert three of the letters in IHOP and not a thing would change. But when the company inverted that fourth letter, a great mystery ensued.

After several days of anticipation, “IHOb” revealed the b stands for burgers because, yes, they also serve burgers. A month later, IHOP admitted the supposed name change was a gimmick all along.

Readers seemed to find the gag palatable. Traffic spiked like an 8-year-old’s energy level after eating IHOP pancakes with blueberry syrup.

WcDonald’s

IHOP isn’t the only food chain to cause a stir by inverting its branding. A McDonald’s in California flipped the golden arches in honor of International Women’s Day and the company changed its logo on its social media channels to match.

McDonald’s said this gesture was meant to recognize “the extraordinary accomplishments of women everywhere and especially in our restaurants.”

(Credit: McDonald’s)

We saw increased readership about McDonald’s related to this move. But it was not necessarily a triumph of publicity. The gesture received harsh backlash as people criticized the company for the wages it pays its workers.

Payless pranks influencers

Fashion influencers flocked to Palessi’s popup shop in Santa Monica, California, to sip champagne and try on shoes listed for up to $1,800. The line to get in extended well out the door. Photos were posted to Instagram.

No one suspected the supposed luxury kicks normally sell for as low as $20 until discount retailer Payless ShoeSource revealed it was behind the entire production.

Well played, Payless.

The farce earned a big bump in readership for the company. Unfortunately, the spike was overshadowed a few months later by the news that Payless was imminently closing all of its US locations.

Tesla boldly goes

Here’s one only Tesla could pull off.

Yes, that’s a Tesla Roadster in outer space.

The electric car company was able to pull off this extraterrestrial feat because of its association with SpaceX (since Elon Musk founded both companies).

So when SpaceX needed to show off the capabilities of its Falcon Heavy rocket during a 2018 launch, it brought along the Tesla as the payload to add some extra flare to the event.

How epic was this stunt? Business Insider’s Mark Matousek wrote, “Tesla created the world’s best car commercial without spending a dime on advertising.”

Both companies saw significant bumps in readership around this event.

Pizza and potholes

Most of us likely have experienced the utter disappointment of receiving a pizza from a delivery person, only to open the box and see a pie that looks like it’s reached us via a carnival ride.

Domino’s created its “Paving for Pizza” campaign aimed, perhaps symbolically, to address this issue by fixing potholes in towns across the US. In theory, this would create a smoother ride for their delivery people.

A road condition meter on the website promoting the campaign shows the supposed carnage various degrees of road disrepair wreak on pizza.

(Credit: Domino’s Pizza)

Domino’s even put its own branding on repaired roadways to make sure citizens knew who was responsible for the fix.

(Credit: Domino’s Pizza)

This campaign did not see the same type of traffic spike as the others. When it launched in June 2018, there were a number of stories that caused a small bump in activity as indicated by the red arrow in the chart below.

It’s possible this campaign had more of a slow burn effect though. It seemed to create increasing buzz at the local level as it expanded to new towns.

And despite the lack of readership at launch, there were a number of positives. PRWeek highlighted the campaign’s success on social media. It also covered the sheer number of requests the company received from towns that wanted to be part of the program, which included over 15,000 zip codes.

Sex sells, but at what cost?

Your scientists marketers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

If the advertising maxim “sex sells” is true, then this one might be the new gold(blum) standard. See for yourself.

The British streaming platform Now TV was behind this monumental stunt.

Unlike the other companies we’ve discussed so far, we didn’t actually see a spike for now Now TV when measuring readership in the UK. Taboola’s semantic AI looks for terms in headlines and the first few paragraphs of a story to categorize them into topics. Since Jeff Goldblum is such a big star, most of the story headlines about the statue gave him top billing and mentioned that it was organized by Now TV deeper in the stories.

With this in mind, we also looked at news stories about Jeff Goldblum and did find a bump in readership when the statue first appeared. As you can see below, it wasn’t the biggest Jeff Goldblum news of the past two years. That honor went to the revelation that Goldblum, Laura Dern and Sam Neill would all appear in the next “Jurassic World.”

The competition is fierce for the attention of readers and customers.

The stunts that not only successfully garnered “earned” media for brands but also significant audiences for those media sites can be categorized into three themes: providing a public service or pushing for social good (Domino’s/McDonalds), generating intrigue (Fortnite/IHOP/Payless), or creating a spectacle (Tesla/NowTV).

The successful stunts for brands were the ones that best aligned with their public image. A lighthearted brand like IHOP with playfully named menu items can get away with shenanigans if it’s all in good fun. While Tesla and SpaceX, both known for being on the cutting-edge of technology, took those reputations to the next level with the space car stunt.

Journalists have the important responsibility of giving readers context about these stunts and holding brands accountable when their plays for attention miss the mark. However, when done right, these stunts not only deliver significant PR, they drive interest and traffic for media companies as well. 


Note: Taboola’s news publisher partners have access to data on trending topics in the Topic Insights part of Newsroom, a real-time audience analytics platform. There’s also a publicly available version of Topic  Insights on the Taboola Trends page.

Taboola is always looking for interesting ways to use data to help bring context to how news readers are interacting with real-world events such as measuring which presidential candidates are getting the most attention and measuring the huge impact of a coordinated media effort to increase climate change coverage. Please DM @franberkman on Twitter if you’re doing any research or reporting that you think this type of data could help support.
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