Some of History’s Best-Hidden Marketing Stunts – and Some of the Worst.

A key concept to successful marketing is to prove that you, or your product/service, provides a much needed solution to a common problem. But what happens when you have the solution, but there’s no immediate problem? You do what some of these brilliant minds do: you create the problem.

How many of these items did you know were the product of insanely innovative publicity and marketing?


Three of the best
a. The Michelin Guide
b. The Guinness Book of Records
c. The Diamond Engagement Ring

Three of the worst
a. Build-a-Bear: Pay Your Age Promotional Day
b. Hoover Free Flights Promotion of ‘92
c. McDonald’s: Return of the Szechuan Sauce


The Michelin Guide

Michelin Stars are synonymous with excellent food quality. The highest grade awardable, three stars, is only for an eatery that possesses ‘exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey’.[2]

It is this “special journey” that brought about the Michelin Guide.

The 2021 Guide for Great Britain and Ireland in a nutshell:[1]

RatingNumber of restaurants with this rankingNumber of restaurants which are new for 2021
Bib Gourmand12616
Michelin Green Star23 0

When French brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin started their eponymous tyre company in 1889, there was no way for them to know just how famous they would become – or how renowned the little red guidebooks they came up with would be.

At that time, the French automobile industry was not large – there were fewer than 3,000 vehicles on the road. So already, the Michelin brothers had a limited market. And if nobody needed new tyres for their new automobiles, how would the brothers ever sell any more tyres?

The answer: by offering an incentive that makes people drive more!

This came in the form of the free little red Michelin Guide Book – ‘Guide Michelin: Offert gracieusement aux Chauffeurs’ (roughly translated as: ‘Michelin Guide: Free of charge to Drivers’[3]), which included maps of the country – specifically, places for motorists to eat, sleep, refuel their automobiles, and where they could purchase new (Michelin) tyres.

These guides proved hugely successful, particularly within the restaurant section. So from 1926 onwards, they refocused the guides on fine dining, introducing the zero-to-three star rating system. So far in 2021, the Michelin Guide has 132 restaurants across the globe listed as three stars and has sold over 30 million copies of the guide![4]

The Guinness Book of Records

The Guinness Book of World Records has been a yearly compilation for as long as many people can remember, with the first iteration appearing August 27th, 1955.[5] It was the creation of Sir Hugh Beaver, the at-the-time Managing Director of Guinness Brewery.

Beaver, who had previously argued with friends over the fastest game bird in Europe[6], believed an excellent promotional material would be a trivia book of facts, to help settle pub debates.

In order to produce this book, Sir Beaver enlisted twins Ross and Norris McWhirter, who were in the process of establishing a fact finding agency.

Published every autumn, the Guinness Book of World Records often receives a lot of product publicity around Christmas, and this is one of the reasons why the product is still so popular today. Filled with obscure facts and competitive records, of which the general public can apply to beat, the book is a best seller every year and has sold more than 143 million copies worldwide.[7]

Diamonds on an Engagement Ring

The engagement ring, or at the very least its concept, has been around for centuries. The Romans, ancient Greeks, and ancient Egyptians had all adopted this practice one way or another.[8] But it wasn’t until 1477 that the first diamond engagement ring was recorded, as a gift from Archduke Maximilian of Austria for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy.[9]

Diamond engagement rings were rare at that point, as only those with enough wealth could afford to have one crafted. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when large diamond masses were uncovered in South Africa. The subsequent diamond rush resulted in a surplus of jewellers with diamonds, and new lower prices caused by the oversaturation, but no buyers.

That was, until De Beers stepped in with their new marketing campaign. Adverts started appearing in the 1940s, in the wake of the Great Depression and the Second World War, marketing diamond rings as a ‘forever’ item. The slogan of ‘A Diamonds is forever’, coined by copywriter Frances Gerety, would go on to be so iconic that by 1999, ‘A Diamond is Forever’ was named as ‘The Slogan of the Century’ by Advertising Age.

These clever newspaper and magazine adverts, often in full colour, drove men to purchase diamonds as an engagement ring for their future wives, and increased De Beers’ diamond sales tremendously. Ever since, diamond rings have been considered a staple for those looking to get engaged.

An original De Beers 1953 magazine advert can even be found on Etsy, selling for an average price of £10.

A 1960 De Beers ad in Reader’s Digest (Photocredit: SensaiAlan/Flickr)

What happens when the solution goes wrong?

Marketing stunts can be great for business. However, they can also be deadly, as shown by these three incidents below.

Build-a-Bear Pay Your Age

Build-a-Bear Workshop products can be notoriously expensive, with full price retail prices ranging from £14 to upwards of £50. For large families, this can become quite a costly treat. In an effort to draw in more customers, on July 12th 2018, Build-a-Bear established a new one-day only promotional event: pay your age. In the press release for the event, it stated that ‘Everyone is welcome to take part in the Pay Your Age Day deal, regardless of age, as long as they are present in store that day’[10] and was operating in stores in the UK, USA, and Canada.

Ultimately, this event proved too popular for it to be successful, with the company CEO Sharon Price John telling CNNMoney “We did not expect crowds of that magnitude. There was nothing in our planning that could have predicted the enormity of the turnout,”[11]. The UK received similar unprecedented popularity, with queues forming that were more than a mile long, according to the BBC.[12] Eventually, this unexpected demand resulted in stores having to shut early – leaving many customers disappointed and a difficult reputation for Build-a-Bear Workshop to repair.

Hoover Free Flights Promotion of ’92

On the back of a global recession, the British division of the vacuum cleaner supplier The Hoover Company decided to run an exciting promotional campaign: two free return flights to Europe when you spend more than £100 on a Hoover product.[13]

This started off exceptionally well for Hoover; sales boomed, stock was moved, and hardly anyone was actually redeeming the promotional offer – which meant money was being saved. But Hoover got ahead of themselves, and later in the year, decided to run a second promotional offer: two free return flights to the USA when you spend more than £100 on a Hoover product.

A 1992 advertisement for the free tickets promotion (Photocredit:

Demand exploded for products once again, however this time, previous customers were reminded to redeem their initial promotional offer of a trip to Europe.

For many, this was a gold mine opportunity to travel. Soon enough, however, the promotion got out of hand, and Hoover could not keep up with the demand of those attempting to redeem their promotional coupons, and the travel companies they had partnered with were also failing.

Less than a year later, with motions in the House of Commons[14] and investigations by The Daily Record and the BBC Watchdogs, the Hoover Holiday Pressure Group was formed by Harry Cichy to demand justice for the broken promises of Hoover.

The costs of tickets, and legal battles, cost Hoover upwards of £50 million – far more than the sales of appliances had generated. Hoover never fully recovered from the damage this promotion incurred, and eventually the company closed its European offices. Additionally, after a 2004 BBC documentary about the scandal, Hoover lost its Royal Warrant.

McDonald’s: The Return of the Szechuan Sauce

It is April 1st, 2017. Rick and Morty season three, episode 1 ‘The Rickshank Rickdemption’ has just premiered unannounced, and is centred around Rick being able to taste McDonald’s Szechuan sauce once again. Awoken in millions is the forgotten memory of the Szechuan Sauce, a promotional sauce released by McDonald’s to commemorate the release of Disney classic Mulan.

Fans of the show flooded social media with requests for McDonald’s to bring back the infamous sauce so they could try it for themselves.

Following the episode, sealed, original packages of the sauce began appearing on eBay, where one sold for over $14,000. Months later, McDonald’s agreed to bring back the sauce. They tweeted an announcement that the sauce would return for one day only – October 7th. McDonalds were ill-prepared, having only given a handful of the sauces to a select few stores – leaving thousands disappointed. Riots ensued, with police having to hold back many protestors.[15]


[1] Michelin

[2] The Guardian

[3] Google Translate

[4] Michelin

[5] History Today

[6] Guinness World Records

[7] Guinness World Records

[8] Ancient Origins

[9] American Gem Society.

[10] Build a Bear

[11] CNN

[12] BBC

[13] Campaign Live

[14] Parliament

[15] BBC

This blog post was originally written in September 2021


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