PR Activations: The Good, and the Bad, and the Ugly

In this day and age, brands must go above and beyond to get noticed. Companies who have strived to get awareness have found creative ways to truly interact with their target audiences. Brand activations are what allow a brand to provide unique experiences to consumers in a more personal and direct way. Have you ever been scrolling through social media or an online news outlet, and seen a crazy publicity stunt being done to promote a new product or movie? Maybe you have been out in public and found yourself an active participant in an activation. This is done intentionally to capture your attention and get you to engage with the brand. A successful activation makes people stop, stare, and eventually act. Some brands will do almost anything to get the attention of the public, even if it means creating chaos and controversy. While we will go over several brands that have been successful in their activations, we will review some others that did not quite make the mark. 


To get the desired attention, a brand must do something out of the ordinary. Paramount Pictures did exactly this in promotion of their psychological-horror film, “Smile. The film, which hit theaters on September 30, 2022, focuses on a woman that is being tormented and haunted by smiling people who appear possessed. In efforts to promote the new movie, Paramount Pictures’ promotion team came up with the compelling idea to buy tickets and strategically place actors in different seats throughout a televised Mets and Yankees game. For all nine innings, the actors stood straight up in their seats, chillingly smiling from ear to ear, while looking straight into the camera. 

Did it work? Yes it did! The activation was able to create a ton of buzz around the film. According to Deadline, the film made over $100 million at the Global Box Office only two weeks after its release. The stunt quickly went viral on social media platforms like Twitter, with one post receiving over 50k likes and 2.8k retweets. The activation was a total success, something Paramount can thank the smiling actors for. 

Film journalist, Erik Davis shared on Twitter, “Here’s some fun, clever movie promo – Paramount seemingly placed #Smile actors in the crowd at both the Yankees and Mets games last night, both in view of cameras,” he continued, “The results were indeed creepy. Going to a game this weekend? Watch out for the smiles!”


There is no predicting the extreme lengths that brands will go to in order to promote themselves. Sometimes, activations can be terrifying, shocking, and even dangerous which just goes to show that a brand will do almost anything to catch the eye of its target consumer. When action-thriller “Mission Impossible III” was released in theaters in April of 2006, the Paramount Pictures promotion team came up with a marketing campaign involving placing red digital boxes covered in wires in 4,500 newspaper dispensers around Los Angeles, CA. These devices were meant to look like the bombs used in the film. When the dispenser’s door would open, these boxes would play the film’s theme song aloud. 

Did it work? No, they completely bombed it. This activation resulted in innocent bystanders believing that there was an actual bomb right in front of their faces, leading them to think they were in immediate danger and calling the authorities. Police got involved and eventually, a bomb squad was called into the area to evacuate a nearby building with over 300 people in it. 

“With the wires leading to the micro-switch on the news rack doors, I can easily see how someone might have misconstrued it as an improvised explosive device,” – Los Angeles sheriff’s sergeant at the time, Mike LaPerruque. 

This activation completely backfired and left Paramount Pictures, the Los Angeles Times, and the company’s advertising firm to pay $75,000 in negligence claims from the incident. This failed activation was a result of the promotions team not thinking the stunt all the way through and neglecting to think of the consequences of putting fake bombs around a huge city. 

“This was the least intended outcome. We weren’t expecting anything like this.” – John O’Loughlin,  Los Angeles Times Senior Vice President of Marketing, Planning and Development.


Shifting from Paramount Pictures, we focus our attention on the fashion brand, Diesel. In 2018, the company known for its denim and t-shirts decided to poke fun at the many bootleg shops that can be found along New York City’s Canal Street through a thorough brand activation. The clothing brand opened its very own store containing what appeared to be knockoff Diesel products. All items had “Diesel” purposely misspelled and printed across the front. The off-brand products caught many bystanders’ attention and lured them into the shop. Little did the consumers know, the products with the misspelled Diesel logo were actually real pieces made by the brand’s design team. 

Now, you’re probably wondering – did the activation work? It sure did. What started as a brand activation stunt quickly became a pop-up shop event. Rapper Gucci Mane, who was sponsored by the brand at the time, took to social media to tell his Instagram followers about the shop. Not long after, a line was wrapped around the outside of the store full of eager consumers willing to purchase the misspelled Diesel products. The activation was an effective way to promote the brand and its upcoming collection it had been set to release.

“The beauty of this idea is when we were telling them it was real, we were actually telling the truth! And they won’t believe it. It’s almost like a brain tease. ‘It is real!’ ‘No, it’s not real!’ ‘No, it is real!’ That’s the joy of this idea.” –  Andy Bird, Chief Creative Officer of Publicis New York 


What may sound like a great idea can easily turn into a PR disaster, which is exactly what Build-A-Bear experienced in 2018 when the company tried introducing its Pay Your Age Day at  stores worldwide. The one-day promotion allowed for buyers to purchase a bear, which normally cost anywhere between $14 and $40, for the amount of however old the individual was. The large turnout for the promotions resulted in long lines forming in front of the stores hours before the workshop even opened, creating as long as 8-hour waits to get in. 

Did the activation work? Maybe for a few hours! Once the evening rolled around, Build-A-Bear franchises began turning away consumers and shutting their doors. The company’s representatives took to social media to explain that there was an unexpected and overwhelming response to the promotion, however, they were willing to offer $15 vouchers to consumers who got turned away. Between losing customers and facing inventory troubles, Build-A-Bear definitely overestimated its abilities when planning this promotion. This example goes to show that in fact, PR activations take significant time dedicated towards preparation and thoughtful planning to be successfully executed. 

Whether a brand is trying to get the word out about its new movie, clothing line or product promotion, a PR activation is an interactive and effective way to generate awareness and grasp the attention of consumers. This is an important aspect of a campaign, as it allows a brand to genuinely connect with the public and get people excited about what’s yet to come.

How can a brand indicate whether its activation was successful or not? In order to determine this, companies must see how many people they were able to reach as a result of the activation. These days, social media plays a huge part in receiving brand awareness. Many brands utilize social media platforms to interact with their target audience after an activation and track social engagement. The most successful brand activations may end up going viral on social media or even make the daily news. 

As brands continue to create new things, we will continue to see them try to step out of the box and come up with innovative ways to get the public’s attention. That also means we will continue to see some brands fail miserably, and others completely thrive while trying to do so. As long as brands remain focused on creating engaging and memorable experiences for their consumers, PR activations will continue being heavily utilized in the industry time and time again. 


Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: