1. Herostratus and the Temple of Artemis
“Apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on anything so grand,” the writer Antipater of Sidon once wrote of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The temple was an architectural marvel and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but it famously met with disaster in 365 B.C., when a Greek citizen named Herostrasus burned it to the ground by setting fire to its wooden beams. When asked why he did it, he boasted that his vandalism had been nothing more than a stunt to ensure that he would not be forgotten by history. The Greeks later tried to snuff out Herostratus’ memory by putting him to death and making it illegal to even utter his name, but just as he had hoped, his story has survived. Even today, the phrase “Herostratic fame” is still occasionally used to describe celebrity achieved through criminal acts.
2. William Kempe’s dance marathon
Famous in his day for his scene-stealing stage performances, William Kempe was an actor and clown who appeared in many of William Shakespeare’s early plays. After parting ways with his acting company in 1600, he launched one of the Elizabethan era’s most peculiar pieces of self-promotion: a 100-mile dance marathon across southern England. Starting in London, Kempe spent nine days prancing toward Norwich while performing a popular folk jig called the morris dance. Along the way, he made frequent stops to promote his project, accept gifts from locals and raise money by placing bets on his progress. The stunt raised Kempe’s profile considerably, and he later cashed in a second time by writing a short account of it titled “Kempe’s Nine Days Wonder.”
3. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier and the potato
The potato was not an immediate hit in Europe following its introduction in the 16th and 17th centuries. The starchy crop was considered odd-looking and potentially poisonous, and many people associated it with leprosy. Its image didn’t get a makeover until the late 1700s, when a French pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier emerged as its greatest advocate. In an effort to convince the public that potatoes were a potentially famine-preventing resource, Parmentier staged a series of bizarre publicity stunts including hosting potato-themed dinner parties and giving out bouquets of potato flowers. He even persuaded Queen Marie Antoinette to wear potato blossoms in her hair. When King Louis XVI granted him a parcel of land outside Paris, Parmentier used it to plant potatoes and then shrewdly stationed armed guards around it to convince locals that the crop was hugely valuable. As soon as the guards were dismissed, a curious mob raided the field of all its potatoes. Along with his research and writings, Parmentier’s stunts are credited with helping make potatoes a staple food in Europe. Several potato recipes are now named in his honor.
4. P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid”
P.T. Barnum liked to call himself the “Prince of Humbugs,” but the showman and circus owner was also the 19th century’s undisputed king of publicity stunts. One of his most outlandish schemes unfolded in 1842, when he began promoting a new curiosity he called the “Feejee Mermaid.” The “mermaid” was actually just the top half of a monkey sewn to the bottom half of a fish, but Barnum marketed it as a wonder of nature that had been caught in the Pacific near Fiji. He even enlisted one of his assistants to pose as its discoverer—a scientist from London’s nonexistent “Lyceum of Natural History”—and had him give several zoological lectures on the creature’s anatomy. By the time the Feejee Mermaid finally found its way into Barnum’s New York museum, public interest was so high that attendance numbers tripled.
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5. The railroad “Crash at Crush”
In 1896, an employee of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad named William George Crush came up with a harebrained scheme to boost his company’s sluggish sales: he staged a head-on collision between a pair of locomotives. After selecting a plot of land in rural Texas—which he renamed “Crush” for the occasion—Crush oversaw the construction of grandstands, built a fresh stretch of railroad track and hyped the event in the press. Some 40,000 people later turned out to watch his “duel of the iron monsters,” but at the appointed hour, the spectacle descended into chaos. When the locomotives collided at over 50 miles per hour, their boilers exploded and sent metal shrapnel flying over 300 yards. Several spectators were injured and three were killed, including a young girl who had her skull fractured by a piece of iron debris. The railroad was forced to pay out settlements to the victims, but the disaster still accomplished its publicity goals. Not only did the company’s business increase, composer Scott Joplin even wrote a popular tune about the fiasco called the “Great Crush Collision March.”
6. The Tour de France
The Tour de France is now the world’s most iconic cycling race, but its inaugural running was little more than a press stunt designed to sell newspapers. The endurance contest was born in 1903, when Frenchmen Geo Lefevre and Henri Desgrange concocted a cross-country bike race to help boost the profile of their sports publication, L’Auto. The newspaper went on to set up a six-stage, 1,500-mile circuit that winded its way across the French countryside, and it ponied up 20,000 francs in prize money to attract riders. A 32-year-old former chimney sweep named Maurice Garin became the inaugural champion that July, but the race also proved to be a triumph for L’Auto: during the first Tour de France, the newspaper’s circulation increased three-fold.
7. Yuma’s 47-day endurance flight
The late 1940s were trying times for the desert town of Yuma, Arizona. With the end of World War II, the military’s Yuma Army Air Field had disappeared and taken many of the community’s jobs with it. When the city began looking for a way to put itself on the map, a local radio station owner made an unusual suggestion: why not break the world record for endurance flying? The quest soon became a community-wide obsession, and on August 24, 1949, local pilots Bob Woodhouse and Woody Jongeward took to the skies in a small Aeronca prop plane called the “City of Yuma.” For over a month, Woodhouse and Jongeward flew 24 hours a day in alternating shifts, regularly buzzing over a nearby runway to grab fuel and food from a speeding convertible. By the time they finally touched down on October 10, they had flown for 47 straight days and set a new world record. The record was broken in 1959, but the stunt still paid dividends for Yuma. The struggling town won nationwide publicity, and the military later reopened its air base in the early 1950s.
8. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
You might guess that the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, got its unusual name from a history of Old West gunfighters and lawmen, but the moniker was actually inspired by a radio show. In 1950, NBC radio personality Ralph Edwards celebrated the tenth anniversary of his quiz show “Truth or Consequences” by offering to provide free publicity to any town willing to adopt the program’s name. That seemed like a good enough deal to Hot Springs, New Mexico, and following a referendum on the issue, locals voted overwhelmingly to rechristen their community as Truth or Consequences. Edwards later hosted a live broadcast from the tiny spa town, and it has remained Truth or Consequences, or “T or C,” ever since.