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Stunt Promotion

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Product publicity on a different level is the stunt promotion. In a recent article, Marketing/Communications lists some of these and tells the results. Publicist, Jim Moran, whose stunts have promoted him along with the client product, is credited with his two now famous promotions: selling an icebox to an Eskimo, and sitting on and hatching an ostrich egg. Another, not listed in the trade journal, was finding a needle in a haystack. Less spectacular stunts that nevertheless proved good promotion include the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's flotilla of blimps-a longtime stunt promotion that has been going on since 1919. Here it is the corporate name, not the product that is publicized. But to anyone who has seen a Goodyear blimp glide over rooftops or open space, the impact of the message is undeniable.

Some stunt promotions play on tire greed of the individual. However, a ready response to the lure of something for nothing doesn't necessarily result in product sales. Corporations know this, and most of them are wary of this type of promotion, feeling the money spent could be better invested.

 Playing down the commercial reasons for a stunt promotion is a "must," according to one public relations director who says "TV people won't show up if it's too commercial, and if you try to push it you're dead. They'll never show up again." However, one persistent publicist, Larry Penzell, found a way out of that. While doing the annual Inventors' Show at the New York Coliseum one year, he decided the coverage needed a hypo, and persuaded one inventor to grow a three day beard and appear with a flashlight, a canteen and his portable duck blind in Central Park before dawn one morning. Penzell then went to a phone booth at a hotel overlooking the spot, and called the New York dailies. He said he was a buyer from St. Louis, and some guy across from his hotel in Central Park was sleeping in some crazy contraption. The city desk showed no interest. Penzell was not discouraged. He called several nearby police precincts, identified himself again as the St. Louis buyer, and reported some nut across from his hotel was swinging from the trees half naked, throwing beer bottles, and yelling "I'm Tarzan." The police fell for it. This time the city desks of the New York dailies did too. The story Penzell thought up for the inventor was that he had spent all his money to get to the show from Stuttgart and was sleeping in Central Park because he was broke. The cops tore up a summons for sleeping in the park, and took up a collection for him along with the reporters. The story made the evening news, and for the remainder of the Inventors' Show, reports claim, crowds lined up to get into the Coliseum to see the inventor from Stuttgart.

Opinions differ on the willingness of the public and the press to accept stunt promotions. The answer seems to he, not in how far out a stunt is, but in its timing and applicability. A highly effective stunt promotion which is contemporary was employed by a new computer component company under the guidance of its public relations director, Sheldon M. Berman.

The new data entry system the company proposed to market wasn't ready so it was impossible to demonstrate its advantage over old systems. Berman didn't go to the business editors because he knew they wouldn't listen. Instead he approached "2,500 business men responsible for spending $500 million annually in computer equipment." He went directly to them via 2,500 live homing pigeons, each in a box with a five day supply of food and water and an attached letter beginning, "Inside this box is a real live flying Anachronism..." Berman's point was: just as the pigeon is now outdated as a messenger, so are current data entry systems.

The stunt was turned into practical sales promotion when each recipient of a homing pigeon was asked to fill out a coupon requesting a brochure, place it in the capsule attached to the pigeon's foot, and release it. The birds then carried the requests for more information back to the computer component company. The actual count of birds that carried the request back is not known. The stunt ended short of making any use of a computer. But old fashioned techniques labeled the response "tremendous," Not only the 2,500 business men listened, but business editors as well. Marketing/Communications published one account; TV's News front also picked up the story, both with full credit to Penta Computer Associates, the originator.

What is a stunt? It is usually a short term affair, designed to catch the imagination of the public. On a long term basis a stunt becomes a standard promotion, the working tool of the PR trade. The thrust of the promotion, the research that motivates it, and the interpretation of that research, determine whether or not it reaches the right audience with the right message. Probably this is the real difference between a stunt and a promotion. A stunt reached anybody within earshot and a message follows as best it can.

A program of influential promotions aimed at two different markets was continued over a long period by Sheaffer Pen Company. These promotions were aimed at elementary school students and high school students.

The elementary school promotion came first because Sheaffer, along with other pen manufacturers, had moved into a lower price line with the cartridge pen. The straight fountain pen was no longer supreme. The price differential, the exploding youth population, and the hope that they, once sold on Sheaffer pens, would continue to use them, all contributed to the decision.

The promotion was developed in cooperation with instructors from the Philadelphia Board of Education. Though teaching of handwriting in schools had by this time gone the way of the horse and buggy, the Philadelphia schools had the reputation of being one of the last of the big local school systems to put some emphasis on handwriting. The main thrust of the program was the preparation of a sixteen page Good Handwriting booklet. Designed to appeal to kids, it showed graphically how to shape letters, join them together to form words, where the "Ts" should be crossed, etc. Pages could be used to trace from; and in addition to examples of letters, there were explanatory paragraphs. Actually a self contained course in handwriting, this booklet was distributed to schools all over the country. The numbers added up to millions over the years.

Constant updating brought minor changes. The lists of words which showed the way the letters were joined were changed by usage. While the booklet was essentially a hand writing guide, it was also a guide to spelling. The Shealfer Pen credit came at the end of the booklet, with a description of the different kinds of writing instruments. The advertising in the booklet, in other words, was minimal.

A marketing deal, centered on the use of the booklet in school classes, was a special price offer on Sheaffer pens for students. This offer was made through both advertising and published stories.

Sheaffer and other pen makers also worked with the Writing Instrument Manufacturers' Association in sponsoring in depth research on handwriting instruction. A grant was made to the University of Wisconsin. A cooperative industry venture, this study focused on the "decline and fall of handwriting."

Without lessening the elementary school program, Sheaffer launched a second program, this one directed at high school students. The pen company was aware that there was no longer any such thing as customer loyalty. Too many new products were constantly being developed, and the fact that a child used a Sheaffer pen in grade school didn't necessarily mean he would continue to use a Sheaffer product the rest of his life.

This second program conducted by Scholastic Magazines, was titled the Scholastic Writing Awards. Big mileage resulted from this program which, like the Good Handwriting program, continued for years. The Writing Awards program had two categories one for junior high school students and the other for senior high school students.

This writing competition ran practically all year. The classifications included poetry, essays, short story and drama. In all, about 300 cash awards were given each year, covering all categories. Announcement of the awards, in addition to being made through all Scholastic magazines, was also disseminated through news stories to newspapers, radio and educational journals. Competitions drew nearly 100,000 entries. The promotion for Sheaffer Pens again, was minimal. Each winner received a Sheaffer pen with his name engraved on it, in addition to die cash award. A distinguished panel of judges was assembled each year by Scholastic, and the awards won tremendous good will at the teacher and school executive level.

Following the judging, individual stories were sent by Sheaffer's public relations counsel to every city where there were winners. Certain cities got a reputation for producing winners, Denver for instance. In a city with ten or twelve winners, a local TV or radio station would often feature the award presentation by the school principal to the youngsters as a public service. The presentation of personalized Sheaffer pens was generally made at a school assembly.

An interesting aspect of what constitutes good public relations is that, in recent years, all entries in the Scholastic Writing Awards contest, although it was sponsored by a pen manufacturer, had to be typewritten.

Considering the national publicity and good will that came from these two promotions for Sheaffer Pens, the overall cost to the company was modest. It was the sort of program that demands continuity and consistency, and benefits from it. Programs such as this one build; in the long run, at less expense, they bring greater rewards to the sponsor than the big one shot promotion.

To wind up the program each year, a New York City library displayed the winning manuscripts for other youngsters to see. One pleasing feature about the Awards was that out of all the entries, there were very few cases of plagiarism, and lots of originality.

Besides handling the Scholastic Writing Awards and Good Handwriting publicity, public relations agency account executive for Sheaffer, Bill Prager, turned out corporate stories. There was also constant publicity from his office in the marketing area straight product publicity. For example, at Christmas gift time features went out on the full range of Sheaffer products, including desk sets and higher priced pen and pencil sets.

Another kind of publicity was the design of the annual report, its writing and layout. This financial publicity which included details of the annual shareholders' meeting, and executive speeches was handled by the PR agency working with Sheaffer's own public relations director.

This was a budget stretching operation for a medium sized company that couldn't afford to do the things large corporations can do. It is a good example of what wise, low key, and suitable public relations can accomplish when the problems calls for more ingenuity than for the spending of money to get the effect.
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