Today's legions of publicists have to plot their campaigns carefully: One wrong move could lead to weeks of ridicule on social media. But the press agents of yore weren't operating under any such restrictions—for better and for (mostly) worse, they felt free to indulge whatever out-there ideas came to mind.
1. JOICE HETH, THE 161-YEAR-OLD WOMAN
P.T. Barnum—coiner of the verifiably false maxim "all publicity is good publicity"—was a relentless self-promoter whose loathsomeness knew no bounds. His treatment of Joice Heth—a blind, paralyzed slave whose rights he purchased from another showman for a third of the asking price—stands as perhaps the single most despicable incident in the history of public relations—no easy feat. After exhibiting her as the miraculously still living 161-year-old nurse of George Washington and (when audiences lost interest) a literal robot, he then, following her death, had her publicly autopsied as a means of proving her age. (She was 80 years old.)
2. THE SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL
The Scopes Monkey Trial was undoubtedly an event of major historical import. But it was also, according to a recent Vox article, a publicity stunt. When Tennessee passed the Butler Act, barring evolution from being taught in public schools, the ACLU went looking for someone to challenge it. The town of Dayton—sensing the media circus that would surround a trial of this magnitude—rushed to find a pro-evolution teacher, landing eventually on Scopes. Dayton got the trial, and the town was soon transformed by the attention.
3. THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN
The Hollywood Sign is, today, just part of the landscape of Los Angeles, used in movies as a kind of natural cue card—i.e., what you’re watching is taking place in Hollywood. But the sign wasn’t the invention of some municipal construction board: When it was erected, in 1923, it was just an unconventional billboard. Harry Chandler—publisher of the Los Angeles Times—built an expensive subdivision called Hollywoodland and paid $21,000 to make the sign as a way to generate interest for it. (It initially spelled out ‘Hollywoodland.’) It was mostly dilapidated by the ‘70s—the 'H' had blown off—but was restored without the ‘land’ as a result of a fundraiser spearheaded by Hugh Hefner.
4. THE RINGLING BROTHERS AND J.P. MORGAN
During the 1933 congressional hearings regarding J.P. Morgan's role in the financial crash, Senator Carter Glass remarked that the proceedings had turned into a circus. The Ringling Brothers company—coincidentally in town—heard this remark and apparently interpreted it as an invitation: Their press agent was tasked with placing a dwarf, Lya Graf, on Morgan's lap during a subsequent hearing, surprising Morgan, infuriating Glass and garnering a ton of attention for Ringling Brothers.
5. GUINNESS DUMPS BOTTLES IN THE OCEAN
It was in 1954 that A.W. Fawcett, Guinness' PR man, got the idea to drop 50,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean, each one of them sealed with a message. Today a gesture like that would suffer some serious backlash from environmentalists. At the time, though, it was a huge success—so huge, in fact, that Guinness repeated it five years later, this time with 150,000 bottles. Decades later, they're still turning up around the world.
6. THE TORCHES OF FREEDOM CAMPAIGN
Edward Bernays is often called the father of modern public relations, and like the millions of publicists he begat he was always happy to exploit a good cause for profit. Hence the Torches of Freedom campaign, an opportunistic (and successful) attempt to co-opt feminism in the name of selling cigarettes. The campaign, funded by Lucky Strike, was an attempt to de-stigmatize the female smoker. It started when Bernays got his secretary Bertha Hunt to step out at the Easter Parade in New York City and light up. Ten other women in the crowd followed her lead, and a media frenzy followed.
7. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER
In the 1800s, newspapers could easily dupe their readership, without worrying about some enterprising Twitter user calling them out on it. Take, for instance, the story of Diedrich Knickerbocker, reported in the New York Evening Post, which described how he'd apparently disappeared without a trace. According to a follow-up article, he'd also left behind a finished manuscript. This manuscript was, in turn, purchased by the Inskeep & Bradford publishing house. (The Post reported on that development, too.) Knickerbocker was never found, because he never existed: His 'manuscript' was in fact by Washington Irving, who came up with the whole publicity stunt as a kind of prank. (‘Knickerbocker’ was synonymous with ‘New Yorker’ at the time.)
8. THE MISSOURI-KANSAS-TEXAS TRAIN CRASH
This publicity campaign was, literally, a trainwreck. Business was flagging on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad, and so its PR agent, the aptly named William George Crush, decided to stage a train collision to generate publicity. The trains would be travelling downhill at speeds of 45 to 60 miles per hour. 40,000 people showed up to watch the crash, and were thrust into chaos when the train's engines exploded. Three people were killed, several dozen were burned by shrapnel, and Jarvis Deane—the event’s official photographer—lost his right eye in the fracas. Crush was fired on the spot, but rehired soon after—the event made headlines around the world and rejuvenated the railroad. Deane, for his part, received a $10,000 settlement, and soon after put this notice in the paper: “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.”
9. THE WAR OF CURRENTS
Thomas Edison rivaled Barnum for his ruthlessness when it came to PR. The man could tolerate no competitors. Famously, he and George Westinghouse invented two different forms of electricity at around the same time: Edison's direct current and Westinghouse's alternating current. Edison embarked on a campaign of destruction, publicly electrocuting dogs and horses with Westinghouse's alternating current in an effort to discredit it. (He even tried to popularize the term 'Westinghoused,' meaning 'electrocuted.')
10. THE DEATH OF TOPSY THE ELEPHANT
Topsy was a Coney Island elephant who killed a spectator in 1902—a sin which, according to management, required him to die. The park's owners viewed it as a chance for publicity, and initially intended to hang him in front of a large crowd. Eventually animal right's groups intervened, and they agreed, humanely, to simultaneously poison and electrocute him in front of a small crowd of invited journalists. While Thomas Edison wasn't present for Topsy's execution, one of his camera crews did film the event—an event that, thanks to Edison, you can still watch today.