When you’re putting together a marketing campaign it’s crucial to seem relevant. You want your advertising to ride the zeitgeist, to click with what’s going on in people’s heads at any given moment. In this day and age this is something that, frankly, often ends in disaster. Namely when advertisers try to ride whatever the latest meme is by launching a related promotion around six months after the rest of us have got bored of it (Wait until this summer to see a whole raft of Harlem Shake based advertisements).

However, if you work quickly, and judge the mood just right, you can get a huge boost by launching an advert that ties into current events. When it goes right, you end up with that wonderful phenomenon where the news will do your marketing for you. If you get it wrong, you’re going to be publically hung, drawn and quartered (basically, what I’m saying is, no matter how good an idea it seems, it’s probably not the time to launch of Thatcher’s Dead! promotion).

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To see how it can work, here are three campaigns that managed to ride the news to success, and one that backfired horrifically.

Kit-Kat Takes a Break IN SPACE!

This February Red Bull scored a marketing coup they sponsored Felix Baumgartner to ride a hot air balloon to the very edge of space, and then jump out. It attracted a lot of attention on the day that it happened I and a group of friends were in the pub, and as the jump took place everybody in the pub was gathered around their mobile phones, watching the live feed of the jump online. It was one of those moments using a portable supercomputer connected to a global network of computers to watch a man leap to the ground from space, that truly makes you feel like you’re living in a science fiction future.

But here’s the thing getting to the edge of space is easy. Even a school child could do it, literally. One high school sent a rubber chicken into space. Some Canadian teenagers sent a Lego man up there.

One marketing team, realising this, managed to rig up a balloon and tie a camera and Kit Kat to it, and set it loose into the stratosphere. They went from idea to execution within 24 hours, managing to get a whole bunch of the publicity that Red Bull was aiming for.

Fortunately they managed to avoid the less complementary publicity that would have happened had someone been brained by a Kit Kat plummeting from orbit.

MPs Should Have Gone to Specsavers

The key to getting good PR from a news story is to instantly understand who the heroes and villains of the piece are. Moral ambiguity is not your friend. One story that gave us some really handy pantomime villains to boo was the expenses scandal a few years back. As journalists were poring over all the information about what MPs had been fiddling on expenses, one industrious PR person found that an MP had claimed 210 for his wife’s spectacles.

It was a situation that just begged for a punch line one that anyone reading it would have thought immediately. Sure enough, Specsavers cashed in, with a ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers‘ ad going up not long afterwards.

Lynx Apologises to Prince Harry

In this modern age there are complex questions surrounding the function of the monarchy in Britain. Apart from in Prince Harry’s case, where his function is to get things hilariously wrong. Whether he’s decided to comically dress up as a Nazi, or has foolishly decided to get drunk and naked with people who were totally okay with the idea of selling those pictures to the press (you might judge them for this, but if any of my friends were foolish enough to get drunk and naked around me I’d be selling those pictures like a shot).

The Lynx campaign decided to tie into this with a public apology, saying ‘Sorry Harry if it had anything to do with us‘. Admittedly, it’s not a flawless campaign. It does imply that a guy who has access to immense wealth and privilege would spray himself with the smell of High School locker rooms rather than a bespoke scent derived from the scent glands of a swan’s armpit. It also seems counter-intuitive since the vast majority of Lynx’s advertising is built around women spontaneously stripping off all their clothes when the sniff what is, frankly, the worst bits of the smell of gin mixed with the best bits of the smell of gasoline.

And Finally… American Apparel Should Have Stayed Away from Hurricane Sandy

And now we come to advertisers who haven’t used this strategy so well. You see the previous entries all have one fundamental thing in common nobody died. If people die, and you try and make money out of that, well, a lot of people might get the impression that you’re, y’know, evil.

This is why American Apparel got a lot of flack for trying to offer discounts to get people to online shop while sheltering from Hurricane Sandy. So I think there’s a lesson we can all learn from that re: Attempting to profit from human suffering.

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