London's Greatest Publicity Stunts

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 47 months ago
London's Greatest Publicity Stunts
When Pink Floyd's albums were reissued in 2011, a certain pig made a comeback at Battersea. Photo by Stuart Cox in the Londonist Flickr pool

When you want to get someone's attention in London, you've got to do it with a big gesture. Here are the best publicity stunts the capital has ever witnessed.

Floating things down the Thames

London's most famous thoroughfare isn't Oxford Street or Piccadilly, it's the Thames. So if you want to give your brand maximum coverage in London, you'd better float something pretty bloody massive down the river. A hulking great Michael Jackson took to the water 20 years ago to promote his album HIStory; in 2012 a bingo company launched an inflatable rubber duck; and who could forget HippopoThames, used to fanfare the Totally Thames festival in 2014. Actually, so many odd things have taken to the sacred stretch of water, we've written about the 10 oddest.  

Magicians doing weird stuff

Magicians are dab hands at publicity. Derren Brown made headlines by unleashing two freaky dolls loose on the tube (see image below). He follows in the footsteps of Dynamo 'levitating' next to a double decker and David Blaine fasting in a Perspex box above the Thames for 44 days. Perhaps the greatest bit of publicity for a magician, though, was when Harry Houdini (somewhat reluctantly) agreed to attempt an escape from handcuffs specially crafted by the Daily Mirror and a Birmingham blacksmith. It ended in tears — literally.  

Derren Brown did this recently, to promote his new show

Mesmerising light shows

If you can get your message up on the side of the Houses of Parliament, you're laughing —although you'd be surprised how reluctant they are to let you graffiti all over Charles Barry's gothic masterpiece. That's when you get yourself a very decent projector and plaster the hallowed walls with everything from celebratory Olympic rings to serious campaigns to naked models.

Then there's going one step further, and effectively turning an entire landmark into something else; we give you the BT Tower lightsaber, used to promote the launch of Star Wars on Blu-Ray in 2011.

In a square not so far far away, on a stark Monday morning in 2012, Tropicana brightened up Trafalgar Square by suspending a 'sun' in the middle of it, then scattering deckchairs around. When the fruit juice competition saw this, they must have been in bits (or no bits).


There was a time when Londoners would literally attend the opening of an escalator: Harrods launched one of the UK's first public moving staircases in 1889, offering brandy and smelling salts to those who'd braved it to the top.

It's also widely claimed that in 1911, when the London Underground's first escalator was unveiled, the one-legged 'Bumper' Harris was employed to ride it over and over, thus demonstrating it was safe for 'anyone'. The truth is probably that he was used to test the escalator, but only once, and not as a publicity stunt.   

Now for a story of a fishmonger with lofty ambitions: in 1814, one in Fish Street Hill got his boy to walk a pony up the 311 steps of the Monument, circle around the top, and walk back down again. It went swimmingly, although how many extra fish were sold that day is not recorded.

It's not just what you do on the stairs; sometimes it's what you do under them. The internet soon sniffed out a publicity stunt in October 2015 when it was claimed an agency was renting out a 'bedroom' under a set of stairs. There have been copious probable stunts like this, including the notorious tent in a living room.   

The sun comes to Trafalgar Square courtesy of some orange juice. Photo by Mike Murphy in the Londonist Flickr pool

Lofty ambitions

Forget fishmongers' ponies; the most famous pig of all time — even more so than Percy, Peppa and Cameron's ex — is Pink Floyd's. Algie the inflatable pig was tethered above Battersea Power Station for the photo shoot of the band's 1977 album, Animals. It earned them more publicity than they bargained for when the pig broke free of its shackles, drifted 30,000ft into the atmosphere and forced Heathrow to cancel flights. Algie (or a relative at least) revisited the power station in 2011, to mark the band's reissue of various albums, and this time, stayed put.

A later dirigible-themed stunt saw some quick thinking from Richard Branson. As the world awaited the erection of what we now know as the London Eye in 1999, the British Airways team behind it suffered a technical problem, and the wheel remained horizontal. Moments later Virgin Atlantic flew the world's snarkiest blimp over the top of the flaccid wheel, brandishing the punchline: "BA Can't Get It Up!!"   

Sometimes there's a more serious point to be made, as is the case with Fathers 4 Justice, members of which have scaled Tower Bridge as Father Christmas, Buckingham Palace as Batman, and got high up on the Palace of Westminster, dressed as a panoply of superheroes.

Kudos too, to writer Dave Lions who, in 2008, stuck himself up on a Shoreditch billboard to promote his new book. No one remembers what the book was called, but still.

Last Updated 02 October 2017

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