backfiring car

When a Publicity Stunt Backfires

June 13, 2024

There are times (April Fool’s Day, I’m looking at you) when a company decides to pull a publicity stunt to see how big a splash they can make. They engage in intentional misrepresentation – of their business’ product, service, or brand – pushed out as a cheeky, hardy-har-har prank. Sometimes the joke lands, but other times it backfires. Regardless of how harmless it may appear on its face, a misfire can bring about public backlash if perceived as insensitive, offensive, or inauthentic, damaging the brand’s reputation and eroding consumer trust. Moreover, if a stunt is poorly executed or misunderstood, it may overshadow the company’s intended message or product, diverting attention away from its core offerings. Additionally, if the joke poses any safety risks or legal implications, it could result in costly lawsuits and regulatory fines, further tarnishing the company’s image. 

Take Volkswagen, for example. The automotive giant took major heat a couple of years ago when it announced, in support of its push for EV vehicles, that it was rebranding itself as “Voltswagen.” The stunt went too far: the announcement came days before April Fool’s Day, blurring the line between truth and gag, and VW’s PR team doubled down on the prank, confirming the inaccuracy as fact to international media. What followed when the truth came tumbling out days later was a feeling of mistrust from reporters who were intentionally lied to by the PR pros, and a befuddled market of consumers unsure of who and what to believe. 

Even worse, the prank caused VW’s stock prices to rise, post-announcement, and fall post-retraction. The company was slapped with an SEC investigation and follow-on suit where plaintiffs claimed the intentional misinformation constituted market manipulation. And in short order, a cheeky prank became a very big crisis. No laughing matter, indeed.

And so, if a well-meaning marketing exec in your organization shares their outside-of-the-box idea for going viral, remember that publicity stunts can result in a range of negative impacts for the company involved, just as it did for our friends at Volkswagen (and countless others). Ensure your team thoroughly considers the motivations behind and potential outcomes of a publicity campaign involving intentional misrepresentation, before they inflate the figurative whoopee cushion. It is a crucial component of mitigating risk and seeing around corners in order to help crisis-proof your business.

Here is a quick exercise you can run at your next team huddle or monthly all-hands meeting, to help test if your organization is prepared for how to manage potential backlash in the case of intentional misrepresentation gone wrong.

Based on what happened with VW: 

  1. How would you handle this situation if it happened to you?
  2. What could you and your team do to ensure that a lighthearted attempt at humor lands as it should?
  3. Who would be on your crisis response team to a situation like this beyond the usual suspects?
  4. How would you rebuild trust in your customers and stakeholders?

Stephanie Craig

Stephanie Craig has built her reputation as a crisis expert by guiding some of the world’s most prominent people and organizations through their most trying moments. Before Kith, Stephanie founded the Apeiron Strategy Group where she counted former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the mayor of the nation’s 10th largest city as clients.