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When PR Stunts Go Bad

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Australian publication Ninemsn – a joint venture between Microsoft and Aussie entertainment company Nine – don’t cover video games. They do movies and music, but that’s about as close as they get. So it’s understandable that they were rather mystified when they received a black box delivered to their office, complete with PIN number and instructions to ‘check your voicemail’.

Only Ninemsn don’t use voicemail. And when one of the staff attempted to enter the PIN code, the box began to beep. So far, so bomb. It probably didn’t help that the reporter who received the package had been prank-called the night before, and a cursory check around other publications showed that no one else had received such a delivery.

Long story short, an explosives squad was dispatched and the building was evacuated. Deep in the basement, officers carefully dismantled the box to discover its contents: a baseball cap, a beanie and a copy of Watch Dogs. Less damp squib, more marketing faux pas.

But despite Ubisoft thinking that sending a beeping box to a newsroom could in no way be easily viewed as a bomb, it’s unfortunately not the worst PR stunt they’ve ever pulled. Upon the release of Splinter Cell: Conviction, a game in which players assume the role of a grizzled secret agent, the publisher saw fit to wrap a man in bandages, give him a replica handgun and send him screaming into an unsuspecting New Zealand bar. The police arrived shortly after, around the time he began pointing the gun at people and threatening to shoot them, with patrons throwing themselves behind tables and generally being in extreme fear for their lives. How that man wasn’t gunned down by an armed response unit is a real mystery.

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But at least Ubisoft aren’t alone in their stupidity. Sony Santa Monica stumbled upon the fantastic idea of hosting an authentic Ancient Greece-themed launch party in Athens to promote God of War 2. And by ‘Ancient Greece’, they meant Ancient Greece. Topless women wandered around offering grapes to those in attendance, whilst partygoers were asked to – no, really – stick their hands inside a freshly beheaded, still warm goat that had been stuffed with offal for them to enjoy.

In fact, it seems that more often than not, PR companies can’t help but take things too far. Such as EA offering ‘free fuel’ (up to the value of £40) from a petrol station in London that was dressed up to resemble a scene from their upcoming Mercenaries 2. Over 500 cars turned up to grab a tank-full, causing massive queues along residential streets, trapping residents’ cars in their driveways and prompting a response from a Member of Parliament.

Not to forget THQ leaving a sledgehammer next to a parked car full of copies of Red Faction: Guerrilla to see if anyone would smash a window to steal a copy on their way to work (they did).

Or Acclaim, who offered £10,000 to the first parent to name their child Turok, after the hero in their dinosaur-hunting series. Or Acclaim, who proposed to pay for every speeding ticket in England on the day of release of Burnout 2. Or Acclaim, who tried to advertise Shadow Man 2 on the gravestones of people who had recently died. It’s suddenly hard to imagine why anyone was ever surprised when Acclaim went belly-up.

Of course, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and needless to say most of the examples here made headlines of some sort. The Daily Mail were predictably outraged at Sony’s decapitated goat stunt, whilst Sony themselves raced to pull 80,000 copies of Official Playstation Magazine from store shelves before people could read about it. God of War 2 then went on to sell over four million copies. People may be scoffing at Ubisoft’s heavy-handed approach to Australian PR, but if even a smattering go on to remember the name Watch Dogs, perhaps it’s done its job. After all, you’re reading this, aren’t you?


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