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Opinion: Do we really buy into big brands’ PR stunts?

In the third of our new Opinion pieces editorial assistant James Cartwright wonders what a skydiving Austrian has to do with sugary liquids and as always we want YOUR comments too, you can join the debate under the text…

On Sunday evening millions of people across the world tuned in to 40 networks across 50 countries to watch an Austrian man leap from beneath a helium balloon that drifted in the stratosphere. As he plummeted towards earth, breaking the sound barrier on his way, we all held our breath and willed his safe return to solid ground. At no point while witnessing this potentially lethal stunt did I crave the taste of a caffeine-rich soft drink.

International daredevil Felix Baumgartner and Red Bull have been collaborating on similarly death-defying stunts for the past 15 years, putting the 43-year-old in increasingly dangerous situations in the name of promoting Red Bull’s brand values. Previous stunts have included record-breaking BASE jumps from a number of the world’s tallest buildings and the first ever skydive across the English Channel – all impressive achievements in their own right, but what exactly does Red Bull get out of them?

The soft-drink giant is estimated to have invested $50M into the Stratos project, divided up between state-of-the-art equipment and a team of aeronautical experts. There’s no way to quantify the return they’ll have received on that investment, though given their global prevalence it won’t take much to cover their costs.

As an exercise in promoting brand values, Stratos makes Red Bull’s core beliefs abundantly clear; take risks, push boundaries and always be the first to try something new. But what if it had all gone wrong? What would the death of a skydiver mean for Red Bull’s sales? For a brief moment during Baumgartner’s fall it looked very much like he might not make it – a prolonged shot of his mother’s terrified face confirmed that all was not going according to plan. Had he perished, the shower of publicity surrounding Stratos and Red Bull could have been financially devastating to the brand.

But does that really matter in the long-run? Do brands like Red Bull really take a hit if they fail to pull off grand PR stunts or do they simply reap the benefits when they get it right? Do activities like these really serve to improve the perception of a company as large as Red Bull? And, most importantly, is it really acceptable to risk a man’s life in the name of shifting extra units of a fluorescent liquid stimulant?