5 Ordinary Things Made Historic Via Publicity Stunts

It’s easy to hearken back to the good old days, when men walked on the moon, women turned their bras into bonfires, and not everything was a crass corporate publicity stunt. But when you think about it, the aforementioned moon landing could only have been a bigger publicity stunt if, rather than an American flag, Buzz Aldrin had planted a giant billboard of Santa Claus drinking a Coke while puffing on a Winston. The world has always been a cynical place.

In fact, many of the things we consider iconic elements of our culture began as cheap grabs for attention …

5

The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List Was J. Edgar Hoover Being A Publicity Hound

Among criminals, showing up on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list must be like getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. The world’s fiercest crimefighters are sticking your face on a poster, declaring you to be the baddest of the bad! Which is … kind of weird, right? The fact that the FBI would take an arbitrary group of their most infamous fugitives and make them celebrities?

FBI
“Gotta catch ’em all!”

The Most Wanted list debuted in newspapers on March 14, 1950 before rapidly spreading to radio and TV. Since its inception, it has directly led to 160 arrests and, most importantly, immeasurably stoked the ego of one J. Edgar Hoover. That was, after all, the original point of the list. It was all a brazen headline grab.

Nebraska Senator George Norris once called Hoover “the greatest hound for publicity on the American continent.” The FBI director’s obsession with fame began in 1933, with the Kansas City massacre and the public’s odd love affair with chief suspect Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Hoover became furious over the attention being garnered by the crime (not to mention Floyd’s prettiness), famously seething, “If there is going to be publicity, let it be on the side of law and order.”

Marion S. Trikosko/U.S. News & World Report
“From now one, the only pretty boys are the ones working for the FBI.”

He fucking meant it. What followed was a series of boy’s clubs, movies, books, radio dramas, and comics, all carefully coordinated by Hoover to elevate the coolness of the G-man well above that of the gangster in the mind of Average Joe. And so it follows that when Bill Hutchinson of the International News Service came sniffing for a listicle of the “toughest guys” the FBI was prepared to duke it out with, Hoover saw the opportunity to create a viral sensation.

The Most Wanted list hit the big time in 1965, when ABC tacked segments devoted to it onto the end of episodes of the popular TV series The F.B.I. Interestingly (and in accordance with his lifelong quest to transform the bureau into an honest-to-goodness pop culture phenomenon), Hoover acted as a consultant on this series right up until his death in 1972, even insisting upon having final approval of the show’s lead actor. Presumably he was consulted via seance on how to most accurately enhance Leonardo DiCaprio’s jowls for his depiction in 2011’s J. Edgar.

4

Groundhog Day Was Invented To Sell Newspapers, Originally Involved Feasting On Said Groundhog

Much like the silent “R” in February or the blueness of raspberry-flavored things, the fact that we as a nation gather around a magical Pennsylvanian groundhog every year to await his weather prediction is one of those inexplicable things we learn not to question. And while we’d love to tell you that the whole thing is the first step in the groundhogs’ nefarious plot to turn mankind into their worshipful servants (Psst! It is exactly that!), the fact of the matter is that the holiday stemmed from one small-town newspaper editor’s desire to move more copies.


“Why couldn’t he just write hit pieces on Spider-Man like a normal editor?”

The editor in question was Clymer H. Freas of The Punxsutawney Spirit, and back in the 1880s, he devoted semi-precious front page space to the yearly tradition of local farmers digging up scads of field-wrecking groundhogs and transforming those furry little sumbitches into mounds of scrumptious barbeque. Remember that this was the late 19th century, before entertainment had been invented; something like Freas’ so-called “Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” could upgrade a bumfuck town into a bona fide tourist destination.

It soon became apparent, however, that in order to keep the hype hyping, the event would need something more … mystical. And so on February 2, 1886, Freas took his annual groundhog-munching coverage and souped it up by combining it with the local Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of using groundhogs to predict the weather on the Christian holiday of Candlemas. The result, as you may have predicted, was the creation of “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” whose shadow held the astonishing power to bullshittedly predict the length of winter.

BrianEKushner/iStock
And yet winter keeps coming, same length, like we’re in some kind of loop.

Freas’ grandiose accounts of Phil’s adventures spread to other papers through the wonders of syndication, and today we find ourselves celebrating an utterly pointless holiday honoring a bulbous squirrel. Which is weird, but hey, at least we’re not yanking the critter from his hovel to gut and roast him on live TV — although if you follow MPAA logic, that would still be less disturbing than the real reason Phil pokes his nose out of his burrow each February: to find a lady groundhog into which he might poke something that is decidedly not his nose.

3

An Entire NHL Franchise Was Created To Promote A Disney Movie

It’s not weird at all for a real sports franchise to show up in a movie — it’s weird when they don’t. Major League is better because they got the rights to the real Cleveland Indians, rather than having to come up with bullshit fake teams. (“The Cleveland T-Rexes have made the playoffs, and must face the vaunted New York Meteors!”) So if you’re not a hockey fan, you might watch Disney’s The Mighty Ducks and say, “Hey, there’s a real hockey team named something like that, right?” and assume it was the same deal — Disney threw a few dollars at the team for the rights to their logo. The truth, though, is so much stupider.


Not as stupid as hockey-playing crimefighting ducks from outer space, but still pretty stupid.

The movie hit in 1992, then the team skated its way into reality in 1993 as the NHL’s newest franchise, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (not coincidentally, the home of Disneyland) — a very corny, ridiculous movie tie-in. While they’re known today as simply the Anaheim Ducks, there was no mistaking their origin story back in the day. They burst onto the ice after a ludicrous 15-minute opening ceremony, complete with an electric guitar rendition of Beauty And The Beast‘s “Be Our Guest.” Against all reason and known laws of the universe, Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner had successfully combined his love of hockey, waterfowl, and animated musicals into a cross-platform, money-making juggernaut.

That’s right, it totally worked! There were two movie sequels featuring cameos by real-life Ducks, a spinoff cartoon series, T-shirts, hats, and dumbass plastic duck bill whistles galore. Surprisingly, Duck hockey mania would not last forever. Interest waned, and after Eisner’s hasty departure from the company in 2005, Disney executives examined the marriage between a children’s movie and the bloodiest sport in the land, rightly uttered “What in the ever-loving fuck,” and promptly sold the team for the $50 million they had originally paid for it.


They then immediately stopped sucking and went on to be perennial Stanley Cup contenders (winning in ’07). Oops.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were left to wonder why the NFL couldn’t have gotten, let’s say, the Miami Sharks from Any Given Sunday, complete with Al Pacino as the coach. Yes, we realize the Anaheim Mighty Ducks didn’t have the actual cast of the movie on the team, but that’s probably because the law wouldn’t let Disney field a team of 10-year-olds against pros. Just little kids getting slammed against the glass, again and again, horrified people screaming from the stands …

2

The Miss America Pageant Was A Tourist Trap Created To Extend The Vacation Season

For nearly a century, generations of Americans have been taught the strict definition of beauty by the Miss America Competition, otherwise known as “the one in which contestants aren’t forced to survive an obstacle course of tiny future POTUS grabby hands.” In that time, scads of young women have earned themselves college scholarships by simply smiling their best smiles, twirling their twirly things, revealing the true path to world peace in 30 seconds or less, and, uh, drumming up publicity for a failing resort town.


A sordid contest began in New Jersey. Shocker, we know.

This one goes back to the dawn of the Roaring ’20s, when Atlantic City, New Jersey was the go-to summer destination for scores of American vacationers. The key word there being “summer” — once Labor Day came and went, the city’s famous boardwalk looked like an atmosphere shot from the opening scenes of a zombie flick. Enter the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City, and their plan to extend the appeal of their fine city with an event called the Fall Frolic.

Strangely, the initial iteration of the event didn’t even feature a beauty pageant, instead focusing on a rolling chair parade (again, they didn’t have entertainment back then). It was only later that the beauty contest was added, and even then it was conceived mainly as a way to increase sales of newspapers: Nine East Coast papers tasked their readers with sending in photos of the prettiest girls they knew. The winners found themselves on the front page of their city’s newspaper and subsequently on a train to Atlantic City, where they could be ogled in their skivvies by both a panel of judges and the public at large.


“Skivvies” being a relative term.

The following year, the winner was pronounced “Miss America” in a (presumably drunken) outburst by local newspaperman Herb Test, and thus an enduring national tradition was born.

1

The Liberty Bell Was Destined For The Scrap Heap (until It Went On A Nationwide Publicity Tour)

Few landmarks scream “America!” louder than Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell (proverbially; it’s not possessed or anything). After all, it was the BONG reverberating from atop Independence Hall on July 4, 1776 which signified newfound freedom for all Americans who weren’t slaves.


Sorry, the other kind of bong.

Just one problem: The whole story of the Liberty Bell ringing to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence is horseshit, fabricated by a magazine writer more than 70 years later. So if the bell (actually a twice-baked and still-cracked replica of the original) never truly rang on the very first Independence Day, how did it become the unequivocal symbol of, um, independence that it is today?

Well, that didn’t come about until 1835, when the abolitionist movement adopted it as their icon, largely due to the biblical inscription that encircles it: “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof.” In fact, it was a pamphlet published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society that gave the bell its modern name, before which it was mainly known as “that useless piece of garbage that’s too goddamned heavy to lug down and melt for scrap.”


A rare moment of crack saving a community.

The newly dubbed Liberty Bell’s fame grew as other movements — from suffragettes to child labor law advocates — also adopted it as their own, and the next thing you know, it hit the road on a veritable Libertypalooza. Kicking off in New Orleans in 1885 and wrapping up in San Diego in 1915, this 10,000-mile publicity tour asked a populace still healing from the Civil War, “Hey, you know what’s great?” The answer to which, of course, was “Fucking America. Which is now represented by this damaged bell, for some reason.”

While the city of Philadelphia may have lost conservation points for not recycling the one-ton paperweight, the nation had gained an irreplaceable (and also irreparable) symbol of American patriotism. And hell, is patriotism even possible without a healthy dose of revisionist history?

Orrin R.K. is a freelance journalist and pop culture writer who also does freelance research at the National Archives. His blog can be found here, and he will do the following for your money. Nathan is a Christian and says things like “Good news! Your sins are forgiven!” He is also called Treegnome, and has a hilarious website called Supertreegnome.com.

For more stunts that will only be iconic in their stupidity, check out The 5 Most Disastrous Marketing Failures of All Time and 5 Psychotic Marketing Stunts That Traumatized Their Audience.

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