How to Blow Up an Armored Truck in 12 Steps
"We blew up a bank one time," David Moranville recounts. "That was almost as cool as when we bulldozed a mall."
Moranville isn't unhinged. He's the creative director and executive vice president of Davis Elen Advertising, a 75-year-old West Coast agency that's known for its unorthodox ideas. Of late, Moranville has been immersed in a campaign for Mafia Wars, a popular social network-based game by Zynga, the hot San Francisco game developer. Davis Elen had been working with Zynga on a few small projects, including some outdoor advertising. When Zynga decided to launch a Las Vegas chapter of Mafia Wars this year, Moranville went all-in. He and his team presented Zynga with more than a dozen marketing campaign ideas.
"We had a big white-board brainstorming meeting over at their office. They wanted to attract new users, but also re-energize the old users who had maybe gone dormant," Moranville says. "Long story short, the comment came out – probably from my mouth – that 'gamers like nothing more than seeing stuff blow up.' That was the concept: Let's just blow shit up."
Well, the concept was a bit more intricate than that, and what started as a simple thought has evolved into a three-tiered campaign that involves an in-game casino-robbery plotline, street teams that included actors in two cities and graffiti-style "wild posting" ads in four metropolitan areas, and a live event in Las Vegas that involved — you guessed it — blowing up an armored truck. Rapper Snoop Dogg set off the explosion on August 19 at 6 p.m., a time that loosely coincided with the signing up of Mafia Wars's 10 millionth user.
We asked Moranville exactly how he went about creating this elaborate pyrotechnic stunt campaign. We've also organized his strategy into steps any aspiring marketing whiz who wants to try blowing up something for publicity can employ.
1. Ask: "Could this actually work?"
If you're in the field of stunt marketing, you must always ask yourself if you can really pull off a plan. Moreover, will the stunt, even if executed flawlessy, be worthwhile? For Davis Elen and Mafia Wars, timing was the biggest logistical concern from the start. Both parties knew integrating the explosion into the online game would spark excitement for existing players, and a real-world spectacle could kindle fresh interest. But would they be able to get a truck, production company, pyrotechnics, permits, and all else done on a short schedule?
"The brainstorm meeting was maybe eight weeks ago," Moranville says. "We knew timing would be the biggest issue from the start, but we went for it. We put all the planning together and the logistics in about four weeks. Then we launched the online tease and video about two weeks ago, and so there's a week left so it's a three-week campaign." Both client and agency took a leap of faith.
2. Shop for a used truck.
Or hire someone else to buy your big wheels. At Davis Elen, Moranville says his creative assistant did all of the preliminary scouting work. And she struck gold: She found a company that buys, sells, and restores armored vehicles. "They do it for sets and such, but also for legitimate money-moving," he says. And the agency learned it was less expensive to work with the armored-truck supplier than to look independently. Another surprise: it was more affordable to buy real, heavy-duty, reinforced armored Dunbar trucks than fakes – or to stage an explosion on a Hollywood set. The agency wound up buying three trucks instead of one – at a price tag of $25,000 each – a fraction of what the company had budgeted. The two trucks that were not to be combusted were turned into roving marketing vehicles as part of an outdoor campaign that hit the streets of New York City and San Francisco. Total cost: $75,000.
3. Scout a location.
The bad news, if you want to put on a brash display of pyrotechnics – especially if the display might, say, resemble a criminal act – is that you can forget about pulling it off in Times Square or on the Las Vegas strip. Even if you've got the funds, getting permits is all-but impossible when you're talking about using such highly trafficked public places.
"If we were to be within the Las Vegas city limits, we would have had to go through the City Council," Moranville said. "There would be a lot more people to organize, if you know what I mean."
Once Moranville realized that his idea of having the Las Vegas strip at least in the background of his explosion shot was all-but impossible, a whole new range of possibilities opened up. That's when his firm discovered Boulder City – a place near Vegas that magician Criss Angel often uses for executing stunts. "Where there's mortars and necessary security, you want to be a place that understands that crazy people are doing something bizarre," Moranville said. Davis Elen's production permit came directly from Boulder City, at a price tag of less than $10,000. What's more, Moranville found a work-around for filming on the strip. The day before the "evidence-destroying" explosion (the video game plot-line involves a gangster and his lady-friend robbing a casino after disguising themselves as security guards and driving a stolen armored van, so what's being staged in the desert is a real-life explosion to mirror the game characters blowing up their getaway van), a video crew filmed actors driving down the strip in one of the display vans. They even got footage of the actors running into and out of a casino. What about permits? "Well, no one told us to leave," Moranville says. Total cost: Less than $10,000.
4. Move all the moving pieces.
"Shipping of the trucks, that was an unexpected expense," Moranville says. "We shipped one to New York for $20,000." Meanwhile, the truck to be annihilated in operation "destroy the evidence" was driven by activation team Makai – another advertising firm, which is based in Los Angeles – to the pyrotechnic offices. Makai, which had also helped find and purchase the vehicles, went about licensing and registering them in California and New York, and making sure the drivers on the street teams were properly licensed and insured. Makai also managed the billboard-style wrapping of the outdoor trucks. Total cost: More than $20,000.
5. Assemble a production crew.
If retaining memory of the event to be staged is important – and with continuing online experiencing of the event being possible, it is – then you'll want to bring in a professional film crew. For filming the explosion, Davis Elen went with a Las Vegas-based production company Fireball. The company managed more than just the filming – it did a lot of the traditional prep-work to securing, setting up, and managing the location of the film shoot. "One of the keys to making this successful is the production team hired someone in Vegas, so we have someone local," Moranville says. "It's always critical to get someone who is local who knows what the red tape is and who to contact."
One limitation to consider: Only about 12 production people could be on hand for the blast, due to the body-count limit imposed by the fire marshals.
6. Start the buzz engine.
Remember, a PR stunt without the PR is like a tree falling in the woods that no one hears. That's useless to both you and your client. In the Mafia Wars campaign, the explosion was just one slice of a diverse multimedia campaign. To bring a broader audience to the online segment – which took place on the Mafia Wars website and on Facebook – Davis Elen planted street teams in four cities to do "wild postings," or put up authorized graffiti posters. That included stickers of $25,000 bills on the ground with a QR code that would direct interested passers-by to the Mafia Wars site if scanned with a handheld device. "We've also been wild posting on people's cars fake bullet holes. In San Francisco, a couple saw from their second-story window the bullet hole, and called the police," Moranville says. "And I put one up in the Vegas airport when I got off the plane." On top of this, the two armored vehicles staffed with actors depicting a gangster and a sultry redheaded woman, are used as mobile advertising. The actor-employees hand out fliers, as well as Mafia War sunglasses and hats.
7. Integrate your real-world marketing approach online.
For Mafia Wars and Davis Elen, the explosion was woven into the game's online presence. "The most inspiring piece of this to me, creatively and otherwise is that Zynga has allowed us to work directly with their game developers," Moranville says. "We actually wrote the concept of destroy the car to get rid of the evidence right into the game. The Mafia Wars team grasped onto it wholeheartedly." Not only that, but the agency also promoted the game by announcing the blast would show live on Ustream.tv. That's on top of traditional radio and online advertising to target demographics. "Integrated marketing is easy to say, but not so easy to do," Moranville says.
8. Hire pyrotechnics and demolition specialists.
"We were hoping to get MythBusters involved with us so they'd do a show," Moranville says, a move that would have saved the companies the expenses of hiring pyrotechnics specialists. "In the meantime, we started looking into different detonations and different companies that obliterate things." Turns out, Los Angeles has quite a variety of companies that detonate blasts for hire. Moranville picked a company in Burbank called WESTefx, which had worked with special effects and blast technology in Apollo 13, Transformers, and Batman. The first thing Davis Elen learned was their armored truck … didn't actually need to be armored. It was stripped of a lot of the interior weight, including armor, engine, and interior detailing. Blasting caps were added to the interior of all the doors, so at detonation each flies 20 or 30 feet. The truck was filled with artificial money, also rigged to blast away at the first explosion. Mortars were affixed to the bottom of the truck so the entire vehicle would rocket about 25 feet in the air before landing on its nose. Finally, WESTefx engineered a compound of black powder, diesel fuel and gasoline, and set it to explode last – so the truck erupted in a massive orange ball of flames. (Fun fact: Diesel gives a cinematic fireball its warm orange glow.) Four WESTefx employees were on hand during the blast. Total cost: $35,000.
9. Call the cops.
When there's fire, there should be fire officials. And an EMT. And some hired police. The number of officials you'll need to hire depends on geography and how many civilians will be nearby the stunt. In this case, where about 75 people would be present, Moranville needed between two and four Fire Marshalls, between four and six hired law enforcement agents, and an EMT. Total cost: Less than $10,000.
10. Ensure a smooth count-down.
By 48 hours out from your publicity stunt, Moranville advises you have everything planned down to the minute – and focus on either doing exactly what you're scheduled to or fixing any unforeseen snags. Keep in mind there's everything from catering to crowd control to transportation to keeping one eye on your online synchronization to manage, so you'll want to spread around the duties. "First and foremost, do as much detail planning up-front as possible," Moranville says. "Don't panic. Even when there are challenges you face – that's just when you have to get creative." One snag Moranville's been dealing with is heightened security around the blast site due to Zynga desiring additional guards. "Apparently, some players of the video games can't differentiate between reality and game, and have been calling in bomb threats," Moranville says. Other things he's been juggling? At least 16 corporate guests, who had been invited to see the explosion firsthand, and about a dozen members of the local press, including full news crews. He hired a PR company, Swift, which is based in Los Angeles, to coordinate with local media.
11. Flip the switch.
Despite the urge to take center stage after all the hard work you've put into a campaign, don't do it. Instead, get someone even cooler. Like a celebrity. Or a politician, if your image is a bit more civic. "I've been doing this 26 years – and when you get to do something like this, it really doesn't get to happen every day," Moranville says. "So don't treat it like everyday business." Working with an L.A. celebrity rep, Moranville arranged to have rapper Snoop Dogg set off the explosion. "Snoop is kind of a gangster in his own right," he says. "He relates a lot to the image as a whole." When is it actually worthwhile to hire an A-list name to headline? Moranville says, when it fits your demographic perfectly, and when you need a little extra credibility boost. "It just gives us a lot more credibility with the press," he says. "This makes it look like 'these people did it right;' they had someone cool push the button."
12. Clean up your mess.
Once the blast has detonated, the PR job is hardly over. Distribution of video, photos, and news of the event takes place largely after a publicity stunt. The post mortem of a campaign's marketing impact can be even more intensive and take longer than creating the stunt event itself. Online impressions – on a promotional site, through social media such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as sales (or, in the case of Mafia Wars, new and returning user activations) - make or break a campaign these days. Good news for Davis Elen: the company says it's already above its goals for online impressions in the Vegas Mafia Wars campaign.
And what about the real life detritus? Zynga and Davis Elen hired a full crew for physical clean-up of the event. What happens to the blown-up truck? "It's rigged back on the flatbed and travels back to the WESTefx office, when they disassemble all the steel and scrap parts."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.