9 Most Disturbing Marketing Moves of All Time

Over the top marketing may get a lot of attention, but too much wrong attention can result in jail time. Here are 9 stories of marketers who went too far.
Author, Profit First
March 12, 2013

From planting bomb-like devices around a major city to sabotaging an international stock exchange or the Olympics, sometimes marketers go a little overboard. Yes, these nine marketing moves got attention, but it also put many of the "brains" behind them in jail. If you're trying to devise an envelope-pushing marketing plan and not sure where shock value ends and criminal behavior begins, learn from these businesses that went way too far.

1. Dell Employee Pretends to Be a Criminal
Dell manager Daniel Rawso manager knew Bryan Chester was a Dell employee, but 400 other Dell employees did not. When Chester showed up dressed in black biker wear, wearing a mask and waving metal objects that looked like guns and knives, employees called the police. A SWAT team and two arrests later, both Rawso and Chester were facing misdemeanor charges. The two Dell employees’ attempt to get the company energized around a new marketing push resulted in a trip to jail.

2. The Aqua Teen Hunger Force Bomb Scare
Emergency personnel and anti-terrorism squads shut down more than a dozen highways, transit stations and other Boston locations on Jan 31, 2007, after hearing about “suspicious devices” around the city. Turns out that Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens had placed placards illuminated by LED lights throughout the area to promote a new show from Cartoon Network. The public thought they looked like IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). The two men were arrested on the day of the incident and charged with placing a hoax device to incite panic, a felony charge that carries a 5-year maximum sentence, and one count of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

3. Hold Your Wee for Wii
It was a 2007 “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest. The name was bad enough, but the outcome was so much worse. In an attempt to market itself, Sacramento radio station KDND-FM required contestants to chug as much water as possible without using the bathroom. The winner would take home a Wii. Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old contestant, complained on-air of symptoms consistent with water poisoning (a real and potentially fatal condition), but the DJs on the “Morning Rave” just laughed. Strange died a few hours later. The DJs' laughter didn’t go over well in court. A jury ordered KDND-FM to pay the Strange family $16.5 million for her death. 

4. Web Host Tries to Get Exposure with DDoS Attack
Sounds like a made for TV movie: In an attempt to market a new DDoS (distributed denial of service) product, a Web host owner sends a denial of service attack to the Hong Kong stock exchange, then says he has software that can fix it. Not many people were impressed. Seven companies with a combined income of $1.5 trillion HK dollars were forced to suspend trading because of the attacks. Tse Man-lai, 28, went to jail.

5. Giant Snapple Popsicle Floods Streets
Bigger is usually better, unless you’re a 25-foot, 17.5-ton Popsicle on an 80-degree June day. When Snapple tried to erect the world's largest popsicle in New York's Times Square in 2005, it discovered that frozen popsicles made of Snapple juice and soaring summer temps don’t play well together. The Snapplesicle melted quickly, flooding parts of Manhattan with kiwi-strawberry-flavored juice. Firefighters had to be called in to close off streets and hose down the mess. 

6. A Real Heart Attack at the Heart Attack Grill
Heart Attack Grill’s over-the-top marketing promotes “taste-worth-dying-for” burgers. When a customer at the Heart Attack Grill had a real heart attack in 2012 as he was eating the “Triple Bypass Burger,” other customers assumed his heart attack, the ambulance and paramedics were part of the grill’s elaborate show. The victim was actually hauled to the hospital with a heart attack, but customers still claim that it was all part of an act. This customer wasn’t the first to have a heart attack at the grill. One of the Grill’s unofficial spokesmen died in front of the grill on Feb. 13, 2013 while waiting on a bus—of a heart attack.

7. Olympic Belly Flop
A Canadian man wearing a purple tutu and advertising the GoldenPalace.com on his bare chest did a belly flop into the Olympic pool at the 2004 Athens games. His antics disturbed some divers so much they failed to complete their dives. He was sentenced to several months in Greek prison. 


Falcon Heene, aka "Ballon Boy", being carried by his father, Richard Heene (Photo: Getty Images)

8. Balloon Boy
The extent some people will go to in order to market themselves (and try to get a reality show) never ends. “Balloon boy” as the media called him, supposedly climbed into a meteorological balloon that broke loose and floated around the globe with the boy inside. The balloon chase that ensued captured national attention. The investigation afterward did too. The boy’s father, Richard Heene, was the mastermind (I use that term loosely) behind the stunt. He got 90 days in jail and learned his lesson—“Do something stupid and the media will come and report on it.” He’s now out of jail and promoting his children as the youngest metal band in the world. I’d say he wants that to be a reality show in the worst way. 

9. Thomas Edison’s Electrocuted Elephant
Thomas Edison couldn’t have pulled this marketing stunt off today without animal activists demanding Edison’s own execution. Even in 1903, his electrocution of Topsy the elephant can still be regarded as the most morbid marketing stunt of all time. Edison used the stunt as part of a smear campaign against his rival Nikola Tesla. Just to be sure the stunt went off without a hitch, Topsy was fed cyanide-laced carrots seconds just before Edison flipped the switch. Jail time served? 0 days. Insane! 

Photo: iStockphoto