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Top 10 Political Publicity Stunts

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Jason C. McLean

Sometimes they worked, sometimes people saw right through them, but they’re certainly all memorable. For this list, we’ll be looking at stunts that either made a political statement or were used to promote or detract from a politician’s goals or image, from Justin Trudeau’s Photobombs, to the infamous “This is Crack!”, and Christ the Redeemer. WatchMojo counts down the Top 10 Political Publicity Stunts.

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Script written by Jason C McLean

Top 10 Political Publicity Stunts


Sometimes they worked, sometimes people saw right through them, but they’re certainly all memorable. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’ll be counting down the Top 10 Political Publicity Stunts.

For this list, we’ll be looking at stunts that either made a political statement or were used to promote or detract from a politician’s goals or image.


#10: Justin Trudeau’s Photobombs


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been captured in a number of supposedly random photos involving ordinary people, but some seem to have an element of staging in them. For example, Trudeau was photographed jogging past a group of teens at their prom in Vancouver. While others in the pictures may not have known what was going on, you can bet that Trudeau’s official photographer, who snapped the shot, certainly did. Photos like these garnered him international headlines as the photobombing PM, but at least some were really political publicity stunts – and very effective ones, too.


#9: “This is Crack!”


In political stunts, props can be an asset, and President George H.W. Bush’s staff made sure he had just the right prop on hand when pitching his escalated War on Drugs to the American people in 1989. During a televised address from the Oval Office, Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine acquired a few days earlier at a park located across the street from the White House. Bush later admitted his administration had specifically ordered a sting to take place in that location. Undercover agents lured dealers to a spot they didn’t usually work in just so the President would have the perfect prop for his show and tell.


#8: Christ the Redeemer


Greenpeace are known for their political stunts, and particularly their banner drops. The environmental group outdid themselves in 2002, when five activists scaled the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to hang a banner reading “Rio plus 10, a second chance?” They were protesting the lack of progress at the Johannesburg climate summit, which had just concluded, and how it failed to build on a similar summit in Rio 10 years earlier. While the Archdiocese of Rio owns the statue, the activists wanted to make it clear they were not protesting the Church.


#7: Mission Accomplished


The Bush family sure love to use props in their political stunts, and this is one case of the son outdoing the father. President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet while wearing a flight jacket to address the media. Naval officers stood behind him as a giant banner reading “Mission Accomplished” hung overhead. You’d usually expect presidents to give this type of speech from White House, and Bush might regret not having done so. The “Mission Accomplished” banner would continue to haunt him, being held up to ridicule while major combat operations in Iraq dragged on for years afterward.


#6: Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall


Presidents, former presidents and presidential candidates appearing on entertainment talk shows is par for the course in our current political landscape, but it took a stunt to make it a reality. In June 1992, Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination locked up, but faced competition in the general election from both incumbent President George H. W. Bush and businessman Ross Perot. He needed to do something unique that would get him noticed, and playing the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” proved to be just that. Not only did Clinton play two songs with the band, he also sat down for an interview with Hall, something presidential candidates had previously only done with serious journalists.


#5: Sean Spicer at the Emmys


Some politicians and political figures like to disguise their publicity stunts as spontaneous moments. But former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn’t bother when he surprised the audience at the 2017 Emmy Awards. After being called to the stage by host Stephen Colbert, Spicer parodied his most infamous moment behind the press room podium by declaring the assembled crowd and those watching at home to be “the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” What Spicer wanted to accomplish was clear: to put his controversial past behind him and start the next phase of his career – a process he continued by schmoozing backstage and at after-parties.


#4: Drinking Fukushima Water


We’ve all heard the expression about putting your money where your mouth is. In 2011, Japanese MP Yasuhiro Sonoda took things to another level by putting his mouth where his mouth was. Arguing that government decontamination efforts around the Fukushima nuclear plant were working following a major earthquake, journalists were still skeptical. So Sonoda decided to drink some of the water collected from puddles under two reactor buildings himself. After getting their attention, he stressed that real safety wasn’t proven by a stunt, but rather through the facts and figures he was presenting.


#3: Donald Trump’s “Birther Movement”


If your political publicity stunt runs long enough, it just might make you President. Donald Trump didn’t start the “Birthers,” a fringe conspiracy movement which sought to delegitimize President Barack Obama by falsely claiming he was not born in the United States. However, Trump picked up on the controversy and promoted the lie relentlessly. Obama publicly released his birth certificate from Hawaii, but Trump didn’t let solid proof prevent him from continuing to repeat the lie. It became a running joke for TV talk show hosts – one that even Obama himself touched on. It also solidified Trump’s credibility with the American far right; a group that would help land him in the Oval Office.


#2: Kathy Griffin’s Severed Trump Head


Even when a political stunt succeeds in getting its desired attention, there can still be consequences. Kathy Griffin found this out the hard way when she posed with a fake severed head meant to resemble President Trump covered in fake blood. The comedian was trying to make a statement about Trump's comments on Megyn Kelly, but many felt she had crossed a line. Griffin lost her job as co-host of CNN's New Year's Eve show and had to cancel her tour. She would even be placed on the no-fly list. Though she initially issued an apology, she later retracted it, saying her critics took the matter too far.


#1: Mike Pence NFL Appearance


At the height of President Trump’s war of words with NFL players symbolically taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence, Vice-President Mike Pence attended an Indianapolis Colts game. They were hosting the San Francisco 49ers, the team whose former quarterback Colin Kaepernick had kicked off the anthem protests. Predictably, some players took a knee during the anthem – and just as predictably, Pence walked out. While his subsequent tweet made his departure seem like a spontaneous reaction, the fact that he had his press pool wait in the van expecting a quick departure told a different story. As a subsequent Trump tweet made clear, it was a planned political stunt orchestrated by Pence’s boss.

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