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People have loved getting attention for as long as attention has been a thing.The publicity stunt exists solely for this reason and when they work well, they can cause a stir and amuse thousands. But when they go wrong, it can go spectacularly wrong.


The Crash at Crush

What would someone have to do in the year 1896 to bring a crowd of 40,000 people to the middle of nowhere in Texas? William George Crush was the man to answer that question with a historical event that came to be known as the Crash at Crush. Crush, Texas, became one of the largest cities in Texas for one day only because it existed for one day only, the place where Crush the man planned to put on an amazing spectacle. He got two locomotives to speed towards each other on the same track, a sort of primitive demolition derby. The purpose of the stunt was to encourage train travel and boost ticket sales. The 40,000 spectators were arranged near the future crash site, drinking lemonade and playing games. The trains each had six boxcars behind them and made it up to 50 miles an hour. The force of the collision would have been between 1 and 2 million pounds.The boilers of each locomotive exploded and shrapnel flew into the crowds. Three people died and a half dozen more were seriously injured. Crush was fired but then rehired the next day because, despite the mayhem, he made the company money.

Cleveland United Way’s Balloon Debacle

One of the best ways to get attention these days is to do something bigger than anyone else has ever done it. Set a world record and you’ll probably trend for a day on social media. Back in 1986, they didn’t have social media, but the idea was the same and if you wanted to release 1.5 million helium balloons in downtown Cleveland, you could get some attention from the press. The United Way of Cleveland did just that to gain some attention for their annual fundraiser. A couple thousand people showed up and there were lots of photos of the colorful mass of balloons as they took flight from the center of the city. But then science happened. Balloons can’t stay afloat forever, and 1.5 million balloons had to return to earth, eventually. A cold front knocked the balloons right back to the ground, and many cars were wrecked trying to avoid them. A runway at the Burke Lakefront Airport had to be shut down due to balloons. A farmer’s horses were badly injured when they panicked and he sued the charity. But most seriously, two men on Lake Erie had an accident and their boat capsized. The Coast Guard had trouble getting through all the balloons that were on the water and their rescue attempt was slowed. The two boaters died.

Greenpeace at the Nazca Lines

No strangers to controversial tactics, Greenpeace has been working since 1971 to affect change in the world whether it’s by protesting nuclear bomb tests, deforestation, overfishing and more. While their goals are for the good of the environment, their members have been known to be overzealous in the past and have been criticized for being reckless, among other things. And when they decided to visit the famous Peruvian Nazca lines during a climate change summit to stage a publicity stunt, they ended up causing damage to the 1,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lines, shaped like a hummingbird, were made by removing stones and leaving soil of a different color behind and the arid climate preserved them for centuries. Access to the site is tightly regulated and you need special footwear to even walk near them so the ground isn’t disturbed. Greenpeace didn’t do this. Instead, they set up banners within the lines that read “Time for Change.” The Peruvian government feared the lines were irreparably damaged and Greenpeace claimed they had followed all protocols to protect the site until drone footage was released, showing that they had not done anything to protect it. Once they were outed, they offered an apology. Several years later after trying to find those responsible, at least one activist was sentenced to probation and given a $200,000 fine.

Harold Lloyd’s Explosive Photo Shoot

History has shown that dangerous stunts can turn deadly when safety precautions are not properly followed. Just look at the tragic case of Brandon Lee on the set of the Crow. Years earlier, silent film star Harold Lloyd suffered his own serious injury, all thanks to a publicity stunt gone wrong. Before he became a silent film icon, he was hustling to get his career off the ground. In 1919, he was doing some promotional photos. At the studio they had a box of props, which included prop bombs. What no one realized was that some of those bombs were not duds, but props discarded from an earlier film for being too dangerous. They were essentially real bombs that someone had mixed up. Lloyd was given one of the bombs for his photos. He lit it with his own cigarette and then held it for pictures to be taken. It blew off half of his right hand when it exploded.

Hold Your Wee for a Wii

When Nintendo entered the console wars with the Wii, it was, for some, a big deal. So big a deal, in fact, that KDND radio in California held a contest to give away a brand new Wii that resulted in someone dying. The contest, Hold Your Wee for a Wii, was fairly straightforward. Whoever could drink the most water without going to the bathroom would win. A nurse called in to warn the station that the contest was dangerous, but she was ignored. Jennifer Strange drank over two gallons of water in three hours to try to win the system. She went home crying and complaining about head pain. She died later of water toxicity. Two years later, a jury held the radio station responsible to the tune of $16.5 million. On air, the DJs joked about the possibility of someone dying from too much water, with one saying it was impossible. Ten employees were fired.

Juliet Prowse and the Leopard

Dancer Juliet Prowse was famous for her dance moves and her legs. But the most remarkable aspect of her fame was probably the fact the same jungle cat bit her twice on completely separate occasions. Prowse was rehearsing for the show Circus of the Stars when a leopard took a bite out of her neck. The incident sounded worse than it was and she was apparently fine after that first attack. Only five stitches! But that was the first attack. Because near death experiences are fun, The Tonight Show called Prowse to do a promotional stunt. They’d have her recreate the incident with the same leopard. And the same thing happened again, only this time the cat bit her ear off and the wound required a surgeon to reattach it.

The Late Late Breakfast Show

Reality TV game shows often push contestants to the limits. Survivor asks you to live for a month in some remote location. Fear Factor had contestants doing death defying stunts. But it’s all supposed to be under the watchful eye of professionals. The danger is never real. Except when it is. In the early to mid-1980s, British audiences got to see The Late Late Breakfast Show, in which audience members got to try to recreate Hollywood stunts with no training at all. Michael Lush, an unemployed construction worker, was to perform a stunt where he escaped from a crate suspended 100 feet in the air and bungee jumped from it. Instead, Lush fell to the ground and died from his injuries in front of the rest of the audience. The bungee was improperly secured. No one with any stunts training had overseen the procedure. The show was canceled just days later.

Cleveland’s 10 Cent Beer Night

If you want to attract a lot of attention, give people something they like at a very low price. If you want it to get ugly, make that thing alcohol. That’s what happened when the Cleveland Indians tried 10 Cent Beer Night back in 1974. In the ninth inning, Cleveland was rallying back from a 5-3 score against the Texas Rangers. But a lot of 10 cent beer had been down by that time and fans had drowned their patience. Despite the fact Cleveland had two runners on base and a chance to win, drunken chicanery took over. Right fielder Jeff Burroughs was knocked down as drunken fans tried to steal his hat. Texas manager Billy Martin led the rest of his team, armed with bats, on to the field in his defense. Fans began to flood the field. Mike Hargrove took a beer bottle to the head. Others were hit by chairs. The riot had begun. With 60,000 cups of beer sold to 25,000 fans, the 50 security guards on site had no chance to maintain order. Twelve fans were arrested, and the Indians ended up losing by forfeit.

The Burning of the Temple of Artemis

In the year 356 BC, a man named Herostratus set fire to the wooden beams of the Temple of Artemis. At nearly 400 feet long, 150 feet wide, with 40 foot columns and built nearly entirely of marble, it would have been quite a sight today, let alone over 2000 years ago. Herostratus set fire to the wooden roof beams for no other reason than he wanted to become famous for being the man who burned it down. So who was Herostratus? We don’t know. He was maybe a peasant or maybe a slave. But his punishment for the act was not just death but banishment from the mind, a punishment called condemnation of memory. His name could not even be spoken after that. Clearly his name survived, but who he was has been lost so the fame he sought, his one goal for the stunt, continues to elude him centuries later.

Disco Demolition Night

Any time you gather an arena of sports fans together and ask them to destroy things, you’re courting chaos. Which brings us to the Night That Disco Died, July 12, 1979. Chicago White Sox fans were encouraged to bring disco records to the park for the express purpose of destroying them. This quickly gave rise to madness and rioting. Disco, as you may know, was huge in the 70s, but not with everyone. Just like in the 90s when rap began to grow in popularity, there were many rock fans who felt this new music somehow would encroach on their beloved music, that it wasn’t music at all, and that it needed to be stopped. Heavy metal, dubstep, and even rock n’ roll itself all faced similar criticisms at one point. The event was organized by a popular DJ who was fired from one station when it switched to disco. Any fan who brought a disco record got in for 98 cents and the records would be blown up in the middle of a doubleheader. The entire stadium sold out, around 48,000 tickets. But there were another 20,000 left outside. Fans threw records onto the field during the game. The destruction went ahead as planned, but it blew a crater into center field. Then it all went to hell. People were throwing cherry bombs and beer. They rushed the field en masse, thousands of them. They jumped 40 feet from bleachers; they lit banners on fire. An estimated 7,000 of them took to the field while those outside rushed the gates. Riot police finally cleared the field, but by then the Sox had to forfeit the game and the promotion went down in history as one of the biggest misfires of all time.
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