Rob Martin, Agency Principal
Broadway shows such as Hamilton often generate plenty of publicity outside the theater, but 57 years ago this month one new Broadway show – Bye Bye Birdie – featured a publicity stunt as the core of its plot. The show opens with news that a famous rock star, an Elvis-like character, will soon be drafted into the U.S. Army. When his agent arranges for this musician to deliver “One Last Kiss” to a teenage girl from a small town in the Midwest, life in that town turns upside down. Applying current p.r. and marketing knowledge to this fictitious idea, I’m wondering: Was this a good idea? Would it still work in today’s world? And what would have to change?
Actually, I think the stunt at the center of Bye Bye Birdie was a pretty good idea, maybe even a little ahead of its time. It was certainly a big-scale idea for that particular era in American history. And even though the publicity stunt was derailed in the show and never fully executed, it had several elements that should have worked in its favor:
Celebrity: The character, Conrad Birdie, was presented as one of the top musical acts of the day, with celebrity status at the level of rock-and-roll stars such as Elvis Presley or The Beatles.
Audience: A well-defined target audience of teenage girls was spot on for this particular idea.
Visual: The concept for the stunt created media-worthy visuals in the form of a photo opp as well as a live TV event.
Reach: The television program selected for the event – The Ed Sullivan Show – was one of the top-rated entertainment programs of its day, with an audience that was about five times larger than the following for The Voice today.
Measurement: A key business metric was built into this concept, with record sales from a soon-to-be-released single called “One Last Kiss” as the primary indicator of success.
The other interesting thing about the Bye Bye Birdie idea is that it took a larger-than-life image – that of a major rock star – and delivered it through a smaller-scale execution, involving one unknown girl in a small town in Ohio.
Would the same idea work today? It might. But there would need to be a few changes.
First, we need to engage a lot more people through social media and other tactical components. I’d like to see a competition or build-up in advance of this event that allows every fan to vie for the chance to be selected.
Next, we would probably need a much more prominent location for the event than a single TV show, based on differences in media, viewership and the way entertainment is delivered to the public. How about The Grammys? Or maybe a live event in Times Square?
Another consideration is which celebrity would merit this level of attention in 2017. Beyoncé? Ed Sheeran? Katy Perry? Justin Timberlake? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
Today, music fans follow celebrities mostly in a digital world, not a physical one. The era of Conrad Birdie may be behind us, but we might still spark a few good ideas by examining his public relations success on the stage.