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Restaurant Publicity Stunts

Many restaurants chains have used publicity stunts to attract national press and make their brand stand out. While the majority of small restaurant owners cannot reach national audiences with their publicity stunts, they can still learn from the big chains’ examples. Employ some guerrilla marketing to attract the interest of passersby, and hopefully the local or regional media, too.

Famous Restaurant Publicity Stunts
Example 1: Taco Bell

Taco Bell has mastered the art of the publicity stunt. In 2001, Taco Bell floated a target off the coast of Australia and offered a free taco to everyone in the U.S. if the Mir space station, which was falling out of orbit, hit the target. This “promotion” was a publicity stunt that cost Taco Bell almost nothing. The chances of the space station actually hitting the target were slim to none, but the campaign quickly snowballed into a PR sensation.

Then, on April Fool’s Day of 2006, an ad posing as an article in The New York Times announced, “Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell.” The ad claimed that the restaurant chain planned to rename the bell the “Taco Liberty Bell,” and that the historical bell would still be accessible to the public for viewing. Many people were fooled, and called to complain. The April Fool’s prank incited a brouhaha of publicity and was noted in more than 650 print publications and more than 400 broadcast media outlets.1

Example 2: Burger King

Another example of a well executed publicity stunt would be Burger King’s “Whopper Freakout” campaign. By discontinuing the whopper for a day and capturing the subsequent “freakout” on camera, Burger King promoted its most profitable burger and highlighted the brand loyalty of its customers. The campaign became a YouTube sensation and incited a chain reaction on the internet, resulting in numerous spoofs.

Example 3: Starbucks

For several years, Starbucks pulled a publicity stunt, which doubled as a study of human behavior, for its holiday promotions. Starbucks cups were attached to the top of cars and driven around different cities. Any time an individual stopped or hailed the drivers to let them know that they had left their coffee on the roof of the car, the driver responded by giving them a free coupon to Starbucks and saying, “Happy holidays from Starbucks.” The stunt generated a lot of press and a series of responses by bloggers and editorial journalists.

Then, in February of 2008, Starbucks closed all of its stores from 5:30pm to 9:00pm to allegedly train its “baristas” to “perfect the art of espresso.” While it was disguised as a training session, the store closings were clearly a publicity stunt meant to show consumers just how serious Starbucks is about coffee. As an added benefit, just like Burger King’s “Whopper Freakout,” the closings also highlighted the number of loyal Starbucks customers who were so dependent on the coffee that even 3 ½ hours without Starbucks caused a sensation in the press.

Publicity for Small Restaurants

Smaller businesses could benefit from imitating the marketing tactics of larger foodservice chains. Your restaurant probably cannot afford to float a target into the middle of the ocean, but there are many other ways to create a newsworthy story. You could try one of the following tactics:

Unique events.

The more unusual the event, the more likely it is to get press. For example, a live show by a local band probably will not generate that much publicity. However, a live show with fire jugglers might. A wine tasting probably will not make the news, but a community cook-off where the winning dish is featured on your menu might be newsworthy.

Special occasion stunts.

Taco Bell’s April Fool’s prank is a perfect example, but your stunt does not have to be so large-scale. For Thanksgiving, you could send an employee out to walk the nearby streets gobbling, dressed as a giant turkey. On Halloween, consider serving special Halloween items, like eyeball soup. Be creative, and you will at least entertain your customers and attract some attention, even if you do not make it into the papers.

Unusual products.

Sometimes, an unusual product can get you some press. For example, Burger King got press when they decided to sell the “left-handed Whopper,” although the publicity stunt partly backfired when it became clear that left-handed Whoppers were not available. You could begin offering a variety of unique products at your restaurant, like pepper jelly or alligator tail steaks, either as a one-time promotion or as a daily special. You could also start experimenting with molecular gastronomy to create interesting textures and add an avant-garde element to your cuisine.

To create newsworthy stories, you need to think outside the box. Publicity stunts may seem outrageous, but they offer a practical way to get people talking about your restaurant. By following the example of some of the big restaurant chains and pulling a publicity stunt, you might be able to attract more new customers than you ever thought possible.


1 Geoff Williams, “Top 10 Successful Marketing Stunts,” July 20, 2006, <http://www.entrepreneur.com/marketing/marketingideas/article159484.html> (accessed December 4, 2008).