The 8 Most Ingenious Fast-Food Publicity Stunts of All Time

These fast-food publicity gambits were either really smart or really dumb, but they certainly had imagination

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Nathan's famously hired actors pretending to be doctors in order to allay fears about their inexpensive hot dogs. 

For as long as people have been running businesses, they’ve been attempting to draw attention to them. Most businesses take a rather traditional route — buying ad space in newspapers or magazines, for example, or shelling out for a TV commercial — but some take the quest for publicity a little too far.

The 8 Most Ingenious Fast-Food Publicity Stunts of All Time (Slideshow)

Fast food companies have millions of dollars at their disposal, earmarked for the express purpose of attracting some publicity to their brand. Everyone has heard of Burger King at this point, so a simple commercial explaining that Burger King is a local burger joint definitely won’t cut it. So how do you promote a brand that everybody already knows about? You think outside the box.

Creative agencies hired by these brands have a daunting task set out before them: Create a campaign that will get people talking and hopefully laughing, one that won’t offend anyone, and will eventually lead to an increase in sales. Simple advertisements are one element of what an agency may set out to do, but publicity stunts are a whole other ball game.

Whereas advertisements aren’t meant to deceive, publicity stunts attempt to get the masses talking by convincing them that something truly outrageous is happening. It’s not until awareness of the stunt hits critical mass that the organizers admit that the jig is up; more often than not, the hoax comes to a crashing halt when people start to get truly angry. For example, in 2010 a soon-to-open restaurant in Berlin attempted to drum up publicity by announcing that donors were invited to give “any part of their body” to their restaurant to be cooked. The whole thing (including the restaurant) turned out to be a hoax. On other occasions, however, a stunt will work like a dream: In 2009, the legendary Seattle fish bar Ivar’s brought two billboards to the surface of Puget Sound that had supposedly been submerged in 1954 to attract the attention of future submarine commuters. It was quickly revealed that it was all a hoax, but sales increased by more than 400 percent, most likely because the stunt was funny and completely inoffensive.

These days, fast food publicity stunts tend to be more silly than anything else, intended to show the lighter side of monolithic brands while getting people talking. For example, Jack in the Box recently unveiled the “World’s Largest Coupon” hanging off of a building in Los Angeles; if you snapped a photo of it, you could redeem it for a buy-one-get-one-free offer. Inoffensive, sure, but also completely forgettable.

Some fast food publicity stunts, however, are anything but forgettable. Read on to learn about eight of them.

Nathan’s: Hiring “Doctors” to Eat Hot Dogs

In what might be called the original fast food publicity stunt, hot dog impresario Nathan Handwerker’s attention-getting ploy also gave rise to a major chain. In 1916, Handwerker, a Polish immigrant and onetime employee of the sprawling Feltman’s Restaurant in Coney Island, decided to open his own hot dog stand just up the street from his former workplace and sell his hot dogs for half the price Feltman's charged: five cents. Because they were so inexpensive, however, potential customers questioned what was really going into them, and tended to stay away. But Nathan had an idea for a now-legendary stunt: He hired actors to stand outside his stand wearing lab coats and stethoscopes while eating the hot dogs. He later unveiled signs reading, “If doctors eat our hot dogs, you know they’re good!” It must have worked, because Nathans continues to thrive today, and you're probably saying, "Feltman who?"

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KFC wanted to prove that they were “talking lunch to new heights” in 2011, so they hired a man to dress up like Colonel Sanders and rappel down Chicago’s 40-story River Bend building. He also handed out $5 coupons to window washers.