The 15 Best Branded Stunts and Activations of 2018 (So Far)

From space shots to Bowie, it's been a banner year

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Elon Musk's Roadster took a trip to space earlier this year. Tesla
Headshot of Doug Zanger

This year’s abundance of branded stunts and activations may make it feel like a recent trend, but the tactic has been a marketing staple since the 1800s. One of the first stunts of this kind to enjoy national attention was in 1896, where a rail line in Texas staged an event in which two trains smashed into each other. An impressive crowd of 40,000 people attended in the aptly named town of Crush, Texas.

While we may not have seen any head-on train collisions lately, 2018 has definitely provided a bumper crop of engaging, compelling and sometimes polarizing stunts. With that in mind, we’ve picked 15 that achieved the goal of standing out in a crowded advertising field.

IHOb Name Change

Brand: IHOP
Creative Agency: Droga5

It’s hard to imagine a pancake restaurant creating so much angst. But, in an attempt to get a little action going, the chain swapped its name from IHOP to IHOb, focusing on their burger line. With about 500,000 social mentions and some good-natured ribbing from other brands, we came to find out that this was merely temporary (though we had an idea that was the case), with the brand reverting back to its griddled staple.

SpaceX Carries a Tesla Into Space

Brand: Tesla
Agency: In-house

Red Bull may be the gold standard in stunts involving space, but that didn’t stop Elon Musk from launching his Tesla Roadster into space aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. It’s was a marketing double-whammy, promoting two of Musk’s ambitious companies at once. While it didn’t cost Tesla any marketing dollars, sister company SpaceX’s investment in the development and launch of the rocket was in the ballpark of $500 million—so it wasn’t exactly cheap.

Dundee: The Son of a Legend Returns Home

Brand: Tourism Australia
Creative Agency: Droga5

Never has a movie that wasn’t a movie elicited such strong responses. A reboot of the ’80s classic with Danny McBride, the brothers Hemsworth (Chris and Liam) and a gaggle of A-list Aussie talent? Yes, please. Though Dundee: The Son of a Legend Returns Home isn’t real (yet), a fact revealed during the Super Bowl, this was one hell of a way to promote tourism.

Everlight Underwear’s Money Hiding in Plain Sight

Brand: Fruit of the Loom
Agency: CP+B

It’s the scavenger hunt New Yorkers didn’t know existed in the first place. But the prize was what everyone loves: cold, hard cash. Hiding stacks of money in 11 locations, Fruit of the Loom made it easy to find the loot—as long as you paid close attention to ads. The instructions are in (relatively) plain sight around the city and, as of the end of last month five little piles of cash, and fancy new underwear, were still waiting.

Jurassic Jeff

Brand: Now TV
Agency: Fever PR

When celebrating the 25th anniversary of a film, what do you do? A new collector’s edition disc release is nice. Maybe an event at a theater to mark the occasion. But, if you’re Britain’s Now TV celebrating the legacy of Jurassic Park, you put a massive statue of sexy Jeff Goldblum smack in front of London’s City Hall and Tower Bridge. The seductive work of art was a big surprise and a decidedly hilarious way to get people to watch the carnivore classic on Now TV.

Winter Olympics Drone Show

Brand: Intel
Agency: In-house

One of the Olympics staples is fireworks at the opening and closing ceremonies. But can you really get the exact shape you want? Enter Intel’s drone extravaganza from the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. After months of preparation, 1,200 drones were choreographed in the sky above, breaking a record (also held by Intel) for the most flown in the air at the same time.

Whopper Neutrality

Brand: Burger King
Agency: David

A king of stunts (no pun intended), the QSR giant’s go at educating the public about net neutrality was yet another of the brand’s Whopper-centric social experiments. Unsuspecting consumers had some seriously entertaining reactions when they were told that, if they paid a lot more, they’d get their beloved Whopper delivered quickly—a metaphor for the idea of fast and slow lanes that internet service providers could create without net neutrality. The video quickly became Burger King’s most-shared ad ever.

Deisel: Go With the Fake

Brand: Diesel
Agencies: Publicis New York, Publicis Italy

Diesel opened up a knockoff store of its own products, intentionally misspelling its name as “Deisel” as part of the gag. Shoppers were surprised with one-of-a-kinds in this Fashion Week stunt that caused quite the storm, and made its point about the prevalence of counterfeit merchandise in a unique way.

Westworld at SXSW

Brand: HBO
Agency: Giant Spoon

A 2-acre recreation of Sweetwater was not only visually impressive but also required a whopping 444 pages of scripts for the 60 actors who populated the town during SXSW. This bit of HBO magic was the buzziest part of the festival in Austin this year and took immersion to new heights.

The Trump Presidential Twitter Library

Brand: Comedy Central
Agency: 23 Stories x Conde Nast

Getting to peak satire, this Daily Show stunt “lovingly” curated Donald Trump’s most famous and infamous tweets. Shuttled around New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it was a moving interactive feast of hubris and policymaking done in 140 character chunks. The installation won a Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Lions.

David Bowie Subway Station Takeover

Brand: Spotify
Agency: In-house

New York’s Broadway-Lafayette station became a canvas of awesome as Spotify honored David Bowie. Helping to promote the “David Bowie is” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, the interactive experience told the story of the legendary musician’s connection to the city.

Altered Carbon at CES

Brand: Netflix
Agency: In-house

The most popular booth at CES this year was also the creepiest. Yet Netflix scored another home run, promoting a fake company for its very real sci-fi series Altered Carbon. The faux firm, Psychasec, billed itself as a technology that morphs human bodies, promising to keep people alive. The body bags were disturbing, but CES attendees couldn’t get enough.

Eight-Hour Sleep Concert at SXSW

Brand: Beautyrest
Creative Agency: Universal Music Group

Most of the time at SXSW, or any big conference for that matter, sleep is hard to come by. But 150 lucky people in Austin were treated to British-German composer Max Richter’s 8-hour epic concerto, “Sleep.” With all tucked into Beautyrest beds, this was the ultimate test-drive that left the haggard masses refreshed—assuming they managed to catch some shut-eye during the surreal experience.

Amazon’s Biggest Delivery Ever

Brand: Amazon
Creative Agency: Tool of North America
Other Partners: Red Rock Entertainment, Universal Studios

As it was hauled across Los Angeles, the huge Amazon box was hard to miss. But this stunt took PR-driven promotional stunts to the next level, incorporating scannable codes and Alexa voice-activation technology to dive deeper into the story. The reveal of the T-Rex statue inside the box included the film’s stars, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, and was a masterful buzz marketing exercise.

Deadpool BluRay Walmart Stunt

Brand: Fox Home Entertainment
Creative Agencies: In-house and Neuron Syndicate

Imagine some of your favorite films getting the Deadpool treatment. The likes of The Terminator, Predator, Edward Scissorhands and Fight Club got just that in a clever retail takeover to promote the release of Deadpool 2 at select Walmart stores across the country.

What other stunts or activations would make your list for the best of 2018? Let me know on Twitter by tagging @zanger.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.