Last week Irish bookmaker Paddy Power hit the headlines after persuading Stephen Hawking to lend his name to a “formula” calculating England’s chances in the World Cup. They even released an accompanying video where the leading theoretical theorist chats about how “England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo”.

The result was a spectacular marketing success. The video went viral, and the press release found its way onto a slew of national newspapers – not least the full page 3 of The Times.

This is not the first silly or outlandish stunt pulled by the bookmaker. Their history of pranks stretches back more than a decade.The most complained-about advert in the UK in 2002 was the poster below. It shows two old ladies crossing the road, with odds displayed in bubbles above their heads. Paddy Power claimed the bets referred to which granny would cross the road first, but many interpreted them as odds on which would be mown down by the approaching 4×4.

 

 

In 2012 the firm began a campaign called “We Hear You”, which comprised of a flurry of attention-grabbing pranks including painting a jockey on the Uffington Horse and hiring aircraft to drag pro-European banners across the sky above the Ryder Cup.

The stunts arguably reached a peak of outlandishness when they sponsored Dennis Rodman, a basketball player turned part-time professional wrestler and triple winner of the “Razzie” worst actor award, to play a basketball game in the hermit kingdom of North Korea. Dubbed “The Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Invitational”, the plans attracted global coverage and had everyone from the celebrity press to foreign policy wonks mentioning the bookies’ brand name.

Almost as controversial was an advert earlier this year offering odds on the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial, with text offering “money back if he walks”. Predictably, the advertisement caused uproar – and the uproar generated yet more awareness for Paddy Power.

The bookmaker has perfected a stunt-based marketing strategy that is hugely effective in terms of reach and impact: they claim to have achieved a 50% growth in new customers and a 29% increase in net revenue since beginning the We Hear You campaign. 

In particular, one stunt from the Euro 2012 football championships – Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner celebrating a goal by hiking up his shirt to reveal Paddy Power boxers – helped the bookmakers receive more than ten times the press coverage of beer brand Carlsberg, who had paid £25m to sponsor the event. Whatever you think of the company’s pranks, they seem to be working.

What they are not, though, is cheap. Traditionally, stunts have been a great way of generating “return on investment” – achieving high reward for little cost. Arguably the most famous stunt of recent decades occurred when lad’s mag FHM projected a naked image of TV presenter Gail Porter onto the side of the Houses of Parliament. This gained huge notoriety, but cost nothing more than one night’s generator and projector hire.

This value-for-money aspect is why stunts are so popular with charities – think Greenpeace scaling the shard last year, or Fathers 4 Justice throwing paint at Tony Blair.

Paddy Power’s stunts, however, are in a different price bracket. To encourage Bendtner to flash his boxer shorts, the company presumably had to fork out enough money to catch the attention of a professional footballer – plus cover the €100,000 fine he incurred from UEFA. Likewise, Prof Hawking apparently worked for a whole month on his Paddy Power commission – and a month of the world’s most famous scientists’ time presumably does not come cheap.

So, the bookmaker has gained huge publicity but at huge price. They have come up with some of the most original, controversial and eye-catching stunts for years – but missed the traditional point of stunts. It is possible they would have achieved the same increase in sales and brand recognition had they spent their fortunes on a traditional marketing campaign.

Still, while the bookmaker’s pranks are sometimes in poor taste, they are never boring. It sometimes seems like their marketing department is run by unruly teenagers – but with some of their stunts, and in particular the excellent Stephen Hawking wheeze – we think this is a good thing.

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