The Mother of Stunt Marketers
A grilled-cheese Madonna, tattooed boxers, and Super Bowl streakers have made a name for GoldenPalace.
By Elizabeth Esfahani

(Business 2.0) – You've probably heard how Diana Duyser scored $28,000 on the Internet. In 1994, after sitting down to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, Duyser made a shocking discovery: A scorch mark on her bread resembled the Virgin Mary. Duyser kept the divine meal in a plastic case on a bedside table for 10 years before putting it up for auction last November on eBay.

More interesting, however, is that the winning bid was submitted by an Antigua-based online gambling site called GoldenPalace.com. Where most people saw American cheese and toast, GoldenPalace CEO Richard Rowe—a 66-year-old Englishman who was formerly a partner in a trust management firm—recognized good buzz for the buck. After he purchased the sacred sandwich, publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the South China Morning Post ran stories that included GoldenPalace's name. (The fact that you've read this far proves that the move is still paying off.) Good Morning America, along with more than 200 TV and radio programs worldwide, also mentioned the company. "People are so inundated by advertising that it's rather like wallpaper," Rowe says. "We aim to amuse, because if people laugh, they'll remember."

BODACIOUS BRAND-BUILDING

Performing crazy acts just to generate publicity—and ultimately sales—is one of the oldest tricks in the marketer's handbook. (See "The Publicity Stunts Hall of Fame," right.) But GoldenPalace is a modern master of the art. In the past nine months, the online casino scooped up a walking cane that was supposedly haunted ($65,000), the silicone implant of a former stripper ($16,766), and a collection of Michael Jackson puppets ($15,099). In mid-April, Rowe went on his biggest bender yet—first paying $650,000 to officially name a new monkey species after GoldenPalace (Callicebus aureipalatii) and then spending $5,000 to own what was alleged to be Britney Spears's positive pregnancy test. And, in Rowe's greatest coup to date, GoldenPalace bought a car it's calling "the Pope Mobile"—a Volkswagen Golf formerly owned by Pope Benedict XVI—for $244,591 in May. eBay says that auction got 8.4 million hits, its most ever in Europe.

Bidding for bizarre items may be a crass marketing strategy, but it's effective in an industry where advertising is controversial. The Justice Department considers online gambling illegal and has been pressuring media outlets to shun related ads. (The department issued a subpoena to Esquire regarding an online poker ad in the magazine's April issue.) With a marketing budget of about $20 million a year, GoldenPalace still runs plenty of traditional and online ads, but the company says PR stunts are a cheap way to build name recognition. Jerry Wind, a Wharton marketing professor, thinks press mentions due to GoldenPalace's $1 million in online purchases are easily worth more than $30 million in ads. "It's very smart in an environment where the 30-second commercial is increasingly less effective," Wind says. Rowe claims that traffic to GoldenPalace's site jumps by as much as 25 percent in the days following the most publicized acts.

After founding GoldenPalace in 1997, Rowe hired a three-person Canadian firm called Cyber World Group—which today has more than 200 employees, thanks to its success with GoldenPalace—to popularize the site. In 2001, Cyber World head of marketing Drew Black paid middleweight boxer Bernard Hopkins to stamp the GoldenPalace moniker on his back for a Madison Square Garden bout. The move angered the fight's TV broadcasters, spurred lawsuits—and was covered by media outlets such as USA Today and The Howard Stern Show.

SKIN IN THE GAME

SINCE 2003, BLACK HAS UPPED THE ANTE, hiring people to streak at more than 1,000 sporting events, from Wimbledon to Pamplona's running of the bulls, with the website's name emblazoned on their bodies. Rather than shell out millions of dollars for a TV spot during the 2004 Super Bowl, GoldenPalace stuck to its bare-bones tactics: A man branded with the phrase "Super Bowel" and the GoldenPalace URL streaked through Houston's Reliant Park during halftime. According to Comscore Media Metrix, visits to GoldenPalace's website jumped immediately by 380 percent, which is especially impressive considering that the stunt wasn't televised and followed Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.

GoldenPalace is one of the top three gambling sites in the world, according to analysts, with 2.4 million visitors per month in the United States alone. Revenue—an estimated $80 million—is growing at 5 percent per month, Rowe says. Of course, eccentric eBay items may eventually lose their luster. Then GoldenPalace will once again have to trump itself. "It's always hard to top the last one," Rowe admits, "but somehow we come up with something." As for his growing collection of odd objects, he plans to send them on a North American tour this summer, with proceeds going to charity.