If you were in charge of WWE and ratings were slumping, what would you do? Come up with fresh angles? Give a new wrestler a run with the belt? Put together a series of high-profile matches for an upcoming PPV? These are all good strategies, but you’re not thinking big enough. Rather than try to just capture the attentions of wrestling fans everywhere, why not do something that will possibly get people who would otherwise never have considered watching wrestling tune in? Imagine what would happen if you could get millions of viewers who otherwise couldn’t care to become loyal fans.
This is roughly the logic behind WWE's publicity stunts. These attention grabs aren’t designed to increase the WWE’s ratings among people who actually care about wrestling; they’re designed to be so outlandish that WWE just hopes that they will somehow get a mainstream audience to tune in regardless of whether or not they actually care. So long as a publicity stunt gets attention, it’s usually considered a success. Still, some publicity stunts are so shameful and cheap that even if they somehow got a million new people to tune in, you would still be compelled to shake your head in shame at WWE for attempting them. They are the 15 most shameful WWE publicity stunts.
15 WWE Teases Brock Lesnar UFC Appearance In 2013
This moment tends to get lost in the story of Brock Lesnar’s UFC departure and WWE return, but it’s one that’s certainly worth hearing. Leading up to 2013’s UFC 168, there were a lot of rumors making their way across the internet that Brock Lesnar was either preparing to make a return at the event or would be present at the PPV in order to talk to Dana White about the details of his return. Given that many fans were eager to see the return of Lesnar following his bout with diverticulitis that some felt might take him out of MMA forever, this was welcome news.
However, the event came and went without Lesnar despite the fact that both he and the UFC had been commenting on it prior to the PPV. It was later revealed that the whole thing was just an elaborate publicity stunt allegedly orchestrated by WWE that was intended to generate additional buzz for Lesnar’s upcoming WWE appearances.
14 The “Return” Of Diesel and Razor Ramon
Some of the most shameful wrestling promotional tactics are reserved for those moments that a promotion decides to pull a bait and switch by advertising one match or event and delivering another. Although WWE does not have a perfect history of avoiding the bait and switch, for the most part, they have been able to avoid the most egregious instances of this tactic. The one notable exception to this came in 1996 when Vince McMahon and Jim Ross began to publicly promote the appearance of Razor Ramon and Diesel, despite the fact that both men had already gone to WCW by this point. Though many had their doubts that WWE would actually deliver on their word, their insistence that it was true led to many tuning into the promised episode of Raw just to see what would happen. What happened was the infamous fake Razor and fake Diesel storyline that WWE refused to simply drop even as it backfired right in their face.
13 The Kevin Federline Fiasco
WWE has never been opposed to a bad celebrity appearance (there are a few of them coming up on this list still) but there’s something about the Kevin Federline cameo that just makes you shudder when you think about it. Maybe it’s because Kevin Federline is the least famous “famous” person that WWE has ever made a big deal of or the fact that he was just going through a very pubic and tabloid gossip heavy divorce with Britney Spears at the time that he was invited onto the show. His mere presence had the ability to make those watching somehow feel like worse people. The worst part about the whole thing, though, is that WWE refused to let his “star power” go.
It wasn’t enough for John Cena to simply give him the Attitude Adjustment on Raw, but they actually let him get a pinfall victory over Cena later that year. Just stop WWE. Please stop.
12 Michael Sam’s Raw Appearance That Never Was
This one isn’t necessarily the worst publicity stunt that WWE has ever attempted, but it’s certainly one of the most bizarre. Back in 2014, Michael Sam made headlines by coming out as the first openly gay NFL player. The news made the already noteworthy Sam a bit of a hot commodity, and various media outlets tried to capitalize off of his popularity. Among them was WWE. Only WWE didn’t try to do so through an angle or press release, but rather through an open invitation for Sam to appear on Raw the next week. Actually, that’s not quite the best way to put it. It was more like they were promoting his appearance the next week.
JBL went on a rant about how great Sam was, Stephanie McMahon made a post about it on WWE.com and the WWE production team whipped up graphics that seemed to indicate Sam would make an appearance. But then, the whole thing was suddenly dropped. Sam never made his appearance, WWE removed most of the related content and to this day nobody is sure what exactly that whole thing was about.
11 Proving Wrestlers Are Tough With Brawl for All
If you’re a wrestling fan, you shouldn’t feel the need to defend wrestlers for being tough. If someone doesn’t think that professional wrestlers are highly-skilled, resilient athletes than it's unlikely you will be able to dissuade them otherwise even with a mountain of facts at your side. What would be particularly ridiculous is if a company like WWE decided to showcase how tough wrestlers really were by trying to pit them against each other in some kind of boxing tournament. Yet, that’s exactly what they did in 1998 with the infamous Brawl for All series.
To this day, WWE’s decision to let their wrestlers actually fight each other in boxing/MMA matches (and get injured along the way) just to garner a little extra publicity remains one of their worst company decisions. To top it all off, the big payoff of the entire tournament was getting to watch Bart Gunn get knocked out by actual boxer Butterbean in the span of about a minute.
10 WWE Milks The Gulf War For All It’s Worth
Although they weren’t in quite as bad of shape as they would be a few years later, WWE wasn’t exactly flourishing by the time that 1991’s WrestleMania VII rolled around. Unable to agree on the main event or sell out the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as they had reportedly hoped to do, WWE officials needed a hook and they needed it fast. So, they decided to hitch that year’s WrestleMania to the wave of patriotic pride circulating at the time as a result of the Gulf War and book the main event as a battle between America (Hulk Hogan) and Iraq (the recently turned Sgt. Slaughter). To truly appreciate how desperate this move was, you really do need to go back and watch the promotional material for this event.
WWE did everything they could to milk these circumstances for all the publicity they were worth, including, allegedly, concocting a story that the reason they couldn’t run the L.A. Coliseum that year was due to security concerns.
9 Lawrence Taylor Main Events A WrestleMania
Guest stars in wrestling don’t have to be a bad thing. That’s especially true of athletes who actually have a long history of working with WWE in exciting ways that help WWE gain some additional exposure without compromising the product. However, there is a limit to how much exposure you should give an athlete. WCW, for instance, learned that putting the World Championship on a B-list actor like David Arquette is an example of taking the concept too far. Although WWE’s use of Lawrence Taylor at WrestleMania XI is not quite that bad, it is still astonishing to think that they were so desperate for media attention at that time that they let an NFL player headline WresteMania above actual full-time wrestlers.
Did they think that if they somehow got whatever small group of people that would order the PPV solely to see Lawrence Taylor, watch the entire event before he appeared that they would somehow be converted into diehard fans?
8 Rosie O’Donnel vs. Donald Trump
You’ve hopefully blocked this out of your mind by now, but back in 2007, America became temporarily obsessed with the feud between Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump. The whole thing started when Rosie O’Donnell called out Donald Trump for being…err…Donald Trump on an episode of The View. Trump took to heart her many accusations (especially the one involving his alleged bankruptcy) and started to throw nearly every insult you can imagine her way. Somewhere along the way, WWE got the brilliant idea to capitalize off of this story by inviting Rosie O’Donnell to Monday Night Raw and offering her the chance to wrestle Donald Trump.
Words cannot describe what a disaster this idea was. Not only was the match between Rosie and an impostor Trump so bad that the crowd started to chant “TNA,” but a good chunk of the episode’s backstage segments were devoted to hyping up this legendary encounter.
7 The "Vince McMahon Hates The Denver Nuggets" Episode Of Raw
In 2009, a bit of a booking conflict reared its ugly head as the Denver Nuggets (who were in the midst of a playoff run) suddenly realized that they had a game scheduled in their home arena of the Pepsi Center the same night that WWE had booked the arena for an episode of Monday Night Raw. Now, because the owner of the Denver Nuggets (Stan Kroenke) also happens to own the Pepsi Center, he decided to give WWE the boot and force them to move the show to Los Angeles. If you’re thinking to yourself “surely they wouldn’t spend the majority of Raw running the Denver Nuggets into the ground,” then you clearly don’t know WWE.
Not only did the announcers make snide Nuggets comments all night, but the main event of the show was a team of babyfaces wearing L.A. Lakers jerseys putting the boots to a team of heels decked out in Denver Nuggets gear. They just refused to let this situation go.
6 The Exclusive Interview With Recently Widowed Melanie Pillman
WWE is such a bizarre place that seems to be built around its own set of rules that sometimes it’s hard to tell if they are intentionally trying to be controversial or are simply ignorant to controversy in the first place. There are few instances of this phenomenon greater than the Melanie Pillman interview. Now, it’s entirely possible that an exclusive interview with Melanie Pillman on the Raw following her husband’s death was just seen by Vince and crew as one of those things you do in this situation. However, it’s also possible that they knew that this would be a bad idea but just couldn’t turn down being able to advertise the interview in order to draw additional ratings.
Regardless of the intent, the awkwardness of the final interview makes it hard to not view it as an intentionally offensive move that should have never, ever been considered.
5 Stand Up For WWE Campaign
Vince McMahon had a bit of a problem on his hands when it came to his wife’s 2010 senate run. See, Vince was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t campaign for his wife directly on-air or really even at events. He knew this because he knew that his image and the image of WWE was already going to haunt Linda enough without him getting directly involved. However, he couldn’t stand by and watch as Linda’s opposition blasted WWE and their content. As such, he launched a campaign called “Stand Up For WWE.”
WWE went out of their way to promote this campaign which was intended to inspire fans to show their support for WWE and hopefully wash away the negative image of it in political circles. The move backfired spectacularly when a fan appreciation rally was called into question by McMahon’s opponents for serving as a vehicle for illegal campaign contributions.
4 The Year of Raw Guest Hosts
No matter how bad a WWE publicity stunt may be, at least you can usually take comfort in the fact that they are over quickly. Meet the notable exception to that rule. From June 29, 2009, to July 12, 2010, nearly every episode of Monday Night Raw was hosted by a special “celebrity” guest. Now, it should be noted that not all of these guests were awful. Actually, Bob Barker and William Shatner were pretty amusing. However, the vast majority of these hosts were either painfully bad or clearly disinterested. Yet, WWE still felt the need to continue this madness for over a year. WWE’s desire to draw in fans related to whomever they felt was famous at the time became increasingly painful week after week and things only got worse when they decided that the apparent cure to this epidemic was to give the guest hosts a more active role in the show. This was truly the darkest timeline.
3 The Death of Vince McMahon
Every wrestling fan knows that a little suspension of disbelief is required if you’re going to watch the product. There are times you just have to take events at face value even though you might know what’s really going on. There are other times, though, that such a thing is simply not possible. There are stories so ridiculous that you would never be able to accept them as part of the program. Vince McMahon’s “death” is one of those times. What’s truly amazing about this stunt is how real WWE tried to make it. For days they treated the supposed death of Vince McMahon via exploding limousine as an actual occurrence just to reap in the extra media attention it would draw. This infamous angle was cut short when Chris Benoit died a couple of weeks later, making WWE’s sincere on-air tribute to the death of Vince McMahon that much more painfully awkward.
2 Vince McMahon’s Million Dollar Mania
How desperate must you be for ratings before you decide to give away a million dollars just to get people to pay attention? Is there anything lower than reaching into your own pockets, pulling out wads of cash and handing them over to someone just so they’ll pay attention to you? As McMahon’s Million Dollar Mania proved, there really isn’t. This is a publicity stunt in two parts. The first was Vince’s giveaway during which he took up significant portions of Raw’s airtime to cold call viewers and give them money for knowing the secret password. The great part about this is that the calls weren’t pre-planned. This led to many instances of nobody picking up or simply sounded very confused. Just when you thought this ratings-grab was done, it was revealed that the entire thing was a set-up to a great on-stage “accident” intended to imply that Vince McMahon was seriously injured. Given that this meant the end of the giveaway, few seemed to care.
1 Donald Trump Buys Monday Night Raw
Putting aside whatever personal political affiliations you may have, it’s time we all come together and admit that it is simply bizarre that the man who took place in one of the most ill-conceived professional wrestling angles of all time is now running for President of the United States. This whole thing started back on a 2009 episode of Raw when Vince McMahon revealed that Donald Trump had purchased Monday Night Raw. Not WWE, mind you, but Monday Night Raw. Now, in typical WWE fashion, they played this announcement up as 100% real and even went so far as to have USA Network put out a press release confirming the acquisition. As it turns out, that was a terrible move. WWE’s stock plummeted by 7% following the news of Trump’s acquisition.
WWE retracted that statement, but still kept the story going until the next week’s commercial-free Raw (thanks to Trump’s money) where Vince McMahon became worried that Donald Trump would continue to host commercial free Raws and lose him money in the process (even though he had sold the product). Instead, he bought back Raw from Trump and, in the process, forced WWE creative to abandon months of storylines built around this angle.