Publicity Stunts That Destroyed Celebrities' Careers

Publicity stunts are not a modern phenomenon. Since time immemorial, people have been crafting memorable moments to create a buzz. In 365 BC, the Greek, Herostratus, used a publicity stunt to ensure that his name was not lost to the sands of time. He accomplished this by burning down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Many others throughout history have followed in his footsteps, some for personal gains, others with a more political purpose.

Not unlike Herostratus, modern-day celebs also seek longevity through assorted publicity stunts. Whether it's a glammed-up "candid" of a star sipping Starbucks, a "secret" make-out sesh on a beach, or a button-pushing tweet, our favorite stars know how to work an audience in both obvious and subtle ways. However, despite the well-worn adage, "There's no such thing as bad publicity," we think some stars would beg to differ. 

The following publicity stunts didn't take down a wonder of the world, but they did destroy these celebrities' careers. 

Kathy Griffin didn't use her head

Kathy Griffin essentially became famous by poking fun at her struggling celebrity status. This is the comedian who starred in the reality TV show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. Griffin's brash shtick worked, and she arguably moved up a couple spots in the Hollywood alphabet, but her signature say-anything brand courted an intense amount of trouble in 2017 when a political stunt that backfired in a big way. 

In May 2017, a photograph of Griffin holding a bloodied effigy of President Donald Trump's head began circulating online. The backlash was swift and dramatic. Her critics were harsh and some of her friends were even harsher. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Griffin claims that she received so many death threats that the FBI deemed she was under a "credible threat." She was also investigated for possible conspiracy to assassinate, and that wasn't all. Many of the venues where she was scheduled to perform her stand-up routine were forced to cancel due to threats of violence at the their locations, and she even lost her long-running New Year's Eve gig with Anderson Cooper. 

Griffin issued a tearful apology, but later took it back. "I am no longer sorry, the whole outrage was B.S.," she told an Australian news network (via Deadline). "I lost everybody — I had Chelsea Clinton tweeting against me!" Needless to say, Griffin will be on damage control for a long time to come. It seems the only thing she killed with that photo was her own career.  

Brian Williams' career goes down under fire

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was a fixture in American's homes for years. The 12-time Emmy winner was heralded as one of the most trusted voices in the nation, until serious questions emerged about his reporting in 2015. 

Williams had served as a war correspondent in Iraq for years, but while recalling one particular story on the Nightly News (via Vanity Fair) in 2015, his memory seemed off ... way off. According to Williams, "During the invasion of Iraq ... the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an R.P.G. ... Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry."

The truth, however, was far less exciting. Williams' chopper wasn't hit by an R.P.G at all. Some soldiers who were there at the time heard his account and called bologna. "The story generated a cascade of other stories in which Williams allegedly punched up various details to heighten the drama surrounding him," reported The Washington Post. "The deluge turned him into a social media meme for dishonesty."

Caught in a lie, Williams was suspended for about six months and demoted to MSNBC. He apologized on the Today show (via USA Today). "Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else..." The result: an entire body of work now tainted by a question mark.

Morton Downey Jr. looks in the mirror

Controversial eighties talk show host Morton Downey Jr. has reportedly influenced some of the biggest names in right-wing political show business, including Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. The Morton Downey Jr. Show was huge for a while, but when viewership waned in the late '80s, Downey Jr. apparently took matters into his own hands (and face).

According to the Los Angeles Times, news broke in 1989 that Downey Jr. was attacked by skinheads in a San Francisco airport bathroom. According to Downey, three neo-Nazis held him down, cut his hair, and covered his face, shirt, and pants in swastikas.

Authorities were suspicious, noting that the swastikas were backwards, as if someone had been looking in a mirror when they drew them. Scissors and a felt-tip marker were found in a toilet. In other words, officials suspected Downey Jr. staged his victimization. 

"Our preliminary investigation shows that this was self-inflicted for whatever reason we don't know," said an airport spokesman. "We can only assume it was for publicity." Needless to say, the guy generated a lot of it — enough to ensure his show was soon canceled.

The birth of the 'wardrobe malfunction'

Before the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" was not yet part of the vernacular. It was on that stage in the middle of the football field in Houston, Texas, that those two little words became part of our pop culture lexicon ... and part of one pop star's undoing. 

Let's review: Justin Timberlake is performing his hit song, "Rock Your Body" with Janet Jackson. As he sings the line, "Gonna have you naked by the end of this song," he rips off a breastplate from Janet Jackson's top and exposes the female singer's breast to the world. Those involved claim it was an accident, but few believe that to be true.

The ripple-effect from the nipple-effect was enormous, at least for one performer. In the immediate aftermath of the event, Jackson was reportedly blacklisted from MTV, VH1, and all Viacom radio stations. Her invite to the Grammys was rescinded, and her career went dark for years. Timberlake, meanwhile, not only attended the Grammys that year, he even won two trophies. His music continued to blast on stations across the country, and he was invited back to headline another halftime show in 2018.

It would take a decade for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to own up to its unequal treatment following the publicity stunt. "I personally thought that was really unfair," FCC Chairman Michael Powell told ESPN in 2014. "It all turned into being about her. In reality, if you slow the thing down, it's Justin ripping off her breastplate."

Ashanti kills career with gotcha-grams

Leading up her 2008 album release, Ashanti was still a known commodity in music and movies, but she wasn't the megastar she once was. Maybe that's why she felt like she needed to make a big noise when it came time to promote her new album, The Declaration. Unfortunately, you can file this publicity stunt under: What was she thinking?

The plan was to use gotcha-grams as a promotional tool. The murder-themed ad campaign enabled fans to send fake news stories to unsuspecting friends that would lead them to believe their lives were in danger. The first music video released for the album featured a similar murder theme, albeit with an added racial angle. 

The whole thing was not a good look. In fact, it was downright ugly. The violent ads led to anti-violence protests, and Ashanti's album sales suffered, resulting in her first album that failed to go platinum. The singer was subsequently dropped by her label, The Inc. Records, over a so-called difference in "philosophies."

"That Ashanti would have to resort to lame PR stunts to sell records is as much an indictment of her label as it is of the singer," reported CNN. "...Even as the sole female member of the rap collective Murder Inc., she was always more good girl than gangster moll. Sullying her act in the hopes that it would translate into album sales didn't work. Not all press is good press."

Screech flunks out of Hollywood

You know him best as Screech from Saved by the Bell, and therein lies Dustin Diamond's problem. He can't shake his sitcom persona and struggled to find his footing after The New Class ended in 2000. He needed a hook, but instead of putting in the work, it looks like Diamond copied his homework from reality star Paris Hilton. In other words: he made a very racy tape.

According to Time, Diamond hired a well-endowed body double to film Screeched, hoping it would go viral and help him make some money. (Hilton's adult video reportedly raked in a cool $14 million.) Diamond's jewels certainly generated a buzz, but not the big bucks. He has since called that tape "the thing that I am most embarrassed about."

But did he learn his lesson? A few years later, Diamond tried another stunt. This time, he published a tell-all book called Behind the Bell that dished behind-the-scenes dirt from the show that made him famous in the first place. That move backfired too. Diamond was ridiculed and ostracized by friends and fans alike. He later claimed the book was written by a ghostwriter who went rogue.

To date, Diamond is still trying to recover from his fantastic fall from grace, though he's come clean about his shady stunts. "I want to put the tomfoolery and malarkey behind me," he told Extra.

Robin Thicke crosses the line

In the summer of 2013, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" was huge. At first, the catchy tune seemed to distract from its lyrics, but, eventually, the critics caught on and detractors claimed the song was misogynistic and condoned rape. Thicke called the criticism "ridiculous."

Then came his 2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance. Knowing full well what the critics were saying about his song and its risque music video, Thicke doubled down on the controversy. He performed his hit alongside a twerking Miley Cyrus in a nude two-piece bodysuit. The performance broke Twitter records, but for Thicke and his already controversial reputation, the stunt made a mountain out of a molehill. Lines had been drawn, and Thicke was on the wrong side. 

When the crooner tried to backpedal on his intentions for the show, even Cyrus refused to let him off the hook. "He acted like he didn't know that was going to happen," she told The New York Times. "...He was actually the one that approved my outfit ... He wanted me as naked as possible." 

To this day, that performance remains infamous for all the wrong reasons, and Thicke's music career has yet to recover.