5 Lessons from the Gurus of Spin

You've heard of these people -because they wanted you to! Here are some pointers in the art of publicity from history's greatest masters of hype.

KILL OFF YOUR RIVALS | Benjamin Franklin

During colonial times, the almanac business was cutthroat. The books were the bestsellers of their day -fun compendiums full of facts and witticisms. So, in 1732, Benjamin Franklin decided to enter the game with Poor Richard's Almanack. In an early edition, Franklin jokingly predicted that rival almanac writer Titan Leeds would die on October 17, 1733 at 3:29 PM, the very instance of a conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.

Humorless, Leeds took the bait and ridiculed Franklin publicly. The response only generated more press for Poor Richard's Almanack, turning it into a best seller. After October 17 came and went, and Leeds was still breathing, Franklin kept up the gag, claiming Leeds was dead and pretenders were writing under his name. Five years later, when Leeds finally passed away for real, Franklin thanked the imposters for stopping their ruse. By then, Poor Richard's Almanack had made Franklin a rich man many times over.


(YouTube link)

Though notorious in Europe, Salvador Dali and his savvy wife, Gala, weren't famous in the United States until 1941, when they took the nation by metaphysical storm. To introduce themselves to Americans, the Dalis threw an unforgettably weird party in Pebble Beach, California, called "Night in a Surrealist Forest." Dali decked the room with 12,000 shoes, 2,000 pine trees, 24 animal heads, 24 mannequins, and a wrecked car. His guest list ranged from A-list stars, such as Clark Gable, to wild animals, including a baby tiger. At one point in the evening, Bob Hope screamed when, after removing the dome from a plate, a toad leapt out at him. After the bizarre bash, Dali conducted an interview for American Weekly from a tall chair -its legs resting on the backs of four giant turtles. Gala claimed the chair "stimulates the artist's creative powers."

THROW A PARADE | Edward Bernays

In 1928, smoking was still considered a taboo for women, so the American Tobacco Company hired a rising adman named Edward Bernays -Sigmund Freud's nephew- to stamp out the stigma. To make cigarettes seem more feminine, Bernays invited 30 debutantes to light a "Torch of Freedom" on Easter Sunday in New York City. Reporters devoured the photo op of stylish women in hats and fur-trimmed coats smoking on Fifth Avenue and making lofty declarations about smashing stereotypes. The next day's headline in The New York Times read "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom." And ladies have been lighting up openly ever since.


Billionaire Richard Branson is like a modern P.T. Barnum. Ever since he launched his Virgin brand empire in 1972, he's executed so many outlandish publicity stunts it's tough to imagine he's had time to do much else -let alone run an airline, an animation studio, and dozens of other ventures. To celebrate the opening of Virgin Brides, his bridal business, Branson got gussied up in blue eye shadow, red lipstick, pearl earrings, and a $10,000 wedding dress. For Virgin's first flights to South Africa, he dressed as a Zulu warrior. When Virgin added flights from San Francisco to Las Vegas, the then-56-year-old CEO bungee-jumped 407 feet off the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, smashing into the building, and ripped his pants open.

GO TOPLESS | Marilyn Monroe

Before Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson, there was Marilyn Monroe, the woman who taught those ladies everything they need to know about getting famous. By 1952, Monroe had been credited in 15 films, but most Americans didn't know her name. She needed some publicity, fast. Around that time, wire service reporter Aline Mosby discovered nude calendar photos that looked suspiciously like Monroe. When the rumor mill started churning, 20th Century Fox warned the actress to stay quiet.

But Monroe had other plans in mind. In March 1952, she gave an interview, admitting the photos were of her and claiming she'd only done them to pay the rent. The outpouring of sympathy made Monroe the most talked about woman Hollywood. One month later she was on the cover of Life magazine, and her next movie, Clash by Night, was a smash hit. Biographers now think that the person who originally leaked the photographs was either Jerry Wald, an executive producer of Clash by Night, or Monroe herself. And that's how a star is born.


The article above, written by Mike Albo, is reprinted with permission from the November-December 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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