February 17, 2023

Bombproof marketing

In August 1980, the FBI encountered the largest and most complex bomb they’d ever seen. (Their words, not mine.)

It was made by John Birges Sr. at his California home, contained over 600lbs of dynamite, and was designed to be impossible to defuse.

Once his diabolical creation was ready, Birges persuaded a couple of unwitting accomplices to wheel it into the second floor of Harvey’s Resort Hotel—a casino in the resort town of Stateline, Nevada—and leave it there.

He also got them to leave a letter demanding $3 million from the casino in return for instructions on how to deactivate the bomb so it could be safely removed from the premises.

This extortion attempt was his revenge for going broke after losing $750,000 playing blackjack at the casino.

The FBI was called in to disarm the device—a metal contraption the size of a photocopier—but they accidentally triggered the detonator and blew a five-storey hole in the building, causing $18 million worth of damage (oops!). Thankfully, nobody was injured or killed by the blast.

The explosion was broadcast on live TV by news crews who were at the scene alongside a crowd of cheering spectators.

And how did Harvey Gross, the casino’s owner, react? Did he think, “There goes my business,” or, “I hope this is covered by my insurance.”?


But here’s what he definitely did.

Seeing an opportunity in the publicity the bombing generated, he turned the aftermath into a tourist attraction.

He quickly reopened the undamaged parts of the casino and installed windows in the walls overlooking the bombsite so gamblers could watch with morbid curiosity as the FBI combed through the wreckage.

So, what’s this story got to do with marketing?

It shows there’s a potential marketing angle in everything if you look hard enough. Even in things that may appear detrimental to your business.

And it shows the difference between success and failure lies in how you react to adversity. Do you roll over and quit when you experience misfortune, or do you double down and find a way to turn things in your favour?

Oh, and let’s not overlook the value of merchandise. Almost immediately after the event, locals and visitors could be seen wearing souvenir t-shirts with slogans such as “I got bombed at Harvey’s” and “I survived the bomb—Lake Tahoe ’80”.

Talk about finding opportunity in the midst of a crisis.