Top 10 most devious, underhanded, and unscrupulous PR events ever


The public relations industry is one of the most important in today’s society. It controls the information flowing from company or agency to consumers or constituents. They are the gatekeepers of information and masters of spin. The industry was born in the early 1900s, and back then there were no regulations in place to make sure PR firms were divulging all their clients’ vital information or downright making stuff up to make their clients look better. Sadly, PR methods haven’t changed much since. Here are the top 10 most unscrupulous PR stunts in history.

10. Cadbury messes with your memory and calls you fat

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Every Easter, people go crazy over Cadbury Cream Eggs. The soft, gooey center surrounded by sweet, sweet chocolate is a staple of the holiday. So when sugar prices shot up, Cadbury came up with a devious plan to save money but not charge customers more: they made the eggs smaller. When customers started complaining that the eggs were not as large as last year, Cadbury posted a statement on their website telling everyone that they were wrong, their memory was bad, and that their hands and mouth had gotten bigger over the course of the year. It wasn’t until The Office actor B.J. Novak went on late night TV and showed side by side the different sizes that Cadbury issued another statement, claiming that they made eggs of all sizes and flavors. They only get away with it because their eggs are pure ecstasy.

9. Edward Bernays ruins date nights forever

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In 1915, Americans were all about vaudeville shows, plays on Broadway, and silent movies. They could care less about one form of performance art: ballet. This was a problem for the Paris-based Ballets Russes when they decided to tour the U.S. Fortunately for them, Edward Bernays was available. Bernays was one of the pioneers of public relations. He was the nephew of famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and often used some of his principles of the nature of the human subconscious to formulate very effective PR campaigns. Bernays convinced American magazines to publish articles touting how fun and amazing ballet was. Needless to say, Ballets Russes had a successful run, much to the chagrin of young American men.

8. The True American Breakfast

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Nothing is as American as a bacon and eggs breakfast…or as artery-clogging. Who do we have to blame for millions of Americans stuffing their face with strips of pig and chicken fetuses every morning? Edward Bernays, of course. Bernays was hired by the pork and poultry industries to boost sales. Before it was bacon and eggs, a typical American breakfast was toast and coffee. Bernays used one of his most dubious methods to con Americans into eating bacon and eggs. He put together a group of doctors to tout the benefits of eating such a hearty breakfast. Since doctors said it was fine, Americans bought it. Bernays paved the way for Americans to die of heart attacks and obesity and invented the “so many out of so many doctors approve” method of selling products.

7. Duping housewives into making cake

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General Mills revolutionized baking and food preparation in the 1930s by introducing Betty Crocker instant cake mix and Bisquick instant pancake mix. The problem was that American housewives felt that using the powdered mixes wasn’t actually cooking, and was too easy. So GM hired Ernest Dichter, another pioneer in advertising. He was the first to use focus groups, and used one to come up with a plan. In order to give housewives the sense that they were cooking something homemade and had some sort of contribution to the recipe, he advised General Mills to simply remove the powdered egg from the mixture and add a step in the baking process: “Just add one egg.” The new idea was marketed as a benefit to the quality of the product and sales went through the roof.

6. Torches of Freedom

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One of Edward Bernays’ most successful was pulled off during the 1929 New York Easter parade. In the 1920s, it was very taboo for women to smoke in public. Bernays sought to change that when he was hired by Lucky Strike cigarettes. He hired several female models to walk in the parade carrying banners saying “Torches of Freedom” (women’s rights movements were just coming into their own then). Bernays cleverly had them stop in front of a group of press photographers and light up Lucky Strike cigarettes. The stunt worked, and Bernays advertising expertise sent sales of Lucky Strikes soaring 200%.

5. Overthrow of a government over fruit

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Ed Bernays makes our list again, but this PR stunt involves the CIA, a coup of a Central American nation, and…fruit. United Fruit hired Bernays to handle a problem they had in Guatemala. It seemed that the newly democratically-elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was buying up farmland to be redistributed amongst his people. However, United Fruit was not allowed to purchase any. So Bernays began a campaign to paint President Arbenz as a communist, which caught the attention of then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1954, Arbenz was overthrown by a military coup that was backed by the CIA. Bernays’ campaign was seen as a vital catalyst for the coup, and United Fruit got their land. And if you’re wondering, United Fruit is still in business today. They’re now known as the Chiquita Corporation.

4. Hill & Knowlton helped start the Gulf War

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Hill & Knowlton is a PR firm that is active today, but they have a relatively shady past. In 1990, trouble was brewing in the Middle East. Tensions were high between Kuwait and Iraq, and it seemed President Saddam Hussein was going to invade. Kuwait, being a small, nearly unarmed nation, was going to need help. So, an organization called “Citizens for a Free Kuwait” was established by the Kuwaiti government and H & K, along with 20 other American PR firms, were hired to drum up American support for Kuwait. H & K devised a PR stunt where a woman named “Nurse Nayirah” testified in front of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, claiming that she witnessed Iraqi soldiers killing premature babies in al-Addan Hospital in Kuwait City. The public was told her real identity was being concealed in fear of backlash, but it was later revealed that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. and not a nurse at all. The fabricated testimony worked, tugging at the heart strings of Americans and was a vital cause of America’s intervention. H & K walked away from the deal with a slap on the wrist from The Public Relations Society of America and $10.8 million.

3. H & K help the tobacco industry kill millions

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H & K’s most controversial client to date, however, was in 1958, when they were hired by the tobacco industry. Back then, medical reports started claiming that smoking caused lung cancer. This was a hefty blow to Big Tobacco’s sales, so H & K were brought in. They released a statement to every major news outlet claiming that there was no evidence showing that tobacco caused lung cancer. It’s a good thing the tobacco industry dumped these guys in 1968.

2. The Atlantic City Train Wreck

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Another big name in the PR industry in the 1920s was Ivy Lee, who is considered to be the father of modern public relations. Lee set up the nation’s third PR firm, and was part of several very high-profile incidents. He was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad to help repair a blemish on the company’s otherwise pristine face. On Oct. 28, 1906, an electric train owned by the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad (a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad) fell off a drawbridge, resulting in 53 people drowning to death. The cause was a malfunction of the drawbridge’s interlocking mechanism that caused the bridge to be uneven. Lee, being the pragmatic strategist he was, decided that it was in the railroad company’s best interest to beat the press to the punch and release the details of the crash before reporters could investigate. This allowed Lee to use his version of the truth to soften the blow to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reputation, and it was the birth of the world’s first press release.

1. The Ludlow Massacre

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Another of Lee’s most infamous clients was John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. was having a bit of a problem with some of their coal workers in Ludlow, CO (read: they were striking due to poor conditions and their $1.68 an hour pay). Rockefeller hired Lee to paint CF&I in a favorable light so the public wouldn’t support the strikers. When the workers seemed to have the edge, Rockefeller took drastic measures and hired the Colorado state militia to quell the strike. A gunfight broke out between the miners and the militia, resulting in the deaths of three miners and a militiaman. Also, the bodies of two women and 11 children were pulled from a cellar after choking to death when the militia set fire to a tent above them. These deaths sparked a 10-day riot that led to 53 dead miners and family members. Lee didn’t miss a beat. He issued several bulletins explaining that the two women and 11 children did not die from a fire set by the militia, but rather from a stove catching on fire. Lee had articles written to show that CF&I was producing coal at maximum efficiency and there had never been any sort of massacre at the coal mine. He also had leaflets passed out in Colorado entitled “The Struggle in Colorado for Industrial Freedom” as a way to show that CF&I was a positive force for Colorado’s economy. Lee’s tactics were based not on outright lies, but contradictory truths that were ambiguously stretching the truth to fit CF&I’s means. The cover-up of the deaths of dozens of people just to save a company’s face became Lee’s specialty.