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3 Secrets to Powerhouse 'Prankvertising' (Video)

So-called “real time marketing” may get all the hype these days, but a bona fide sleeper trend of has got to be Prankvertising – physical world stunts with digital world elements that surprise, excite and, with luck and a lot of promotion, go wildly viral. As a new entry into our annual GEN WOW Awards, our list of Top 10 Marketing Pranks for 2013 was so popular with our readers, we thought we'd share some insights on how to prank consumers right. 


A growing number of brands are finding that it can pay big to pull pranks on your customers so other people can laugh at them.

Just look at Sony Pictures, which faked this telekinetic rampage inside a local coffee shop - captured in the video above - complete with patrons pushed up the side of the wall, furniture and books blown about – to promote the new remake of the horror classic, “Carrie.”

Or LG. In an effort to show off the lifelike picture on its next-generation IPS video monitors, the consumer electronics giant scared the crud out of people in elevators by making it appear as if the floor is falling away – with the instant fear captured with eye-level cameras.

Or even candy brand Tic-Tac, which combined a flash mob with a giant digital sign – all in the service of creating a hugely embarrassing scene by making unsuspecting passersby believe they have astonishingly bad breath.

Dubbed “prankvertising,” the technique combines real-world antics with digital-age magic to astonish those who see it live, and to delight the many (many) more who will view videos of the shenanigans online.

And it’s catching on – because it costs a fraction of the money of network television spots to produce, and promises a viral multiplier effect as consumers spread the mischief via social media.

But with the potential risks so high, the possible backlash to brands so profound, how do you punk your customers for fun and profit?

Very carefully. And always keep these three all-important secrets to successful prankvertising in mind.

1. No Method, Pure Madness

It’s critical that you understand what your objectives are for your stunt. In the “Carrie” example above, patrons would be forgiven for not knowing what the promotion is all about. There may have been a big reveal that told them it was all a promotion for the movie. But we don’t see it in the video, so it’s left unclear whether they ever knew what hit them.

Ditto for a recent stunt from insurance carrier Europe Assistance IT, which involves a submarine that seems to have crashed through the streets of Milan.

The stunt was so amazing, it garnered widespread coverage from outlets ranging from Huffington Post to NBC News. Which, to be clear, was surely part of the plan.

But aside from car door signage and a hashtag motif on clothing and the sub itself, without a climatic reveal, it’s unclear to me how passersby (or even many casual viewers of the video) ever figured out what company, if any, was behind this gobstopping display.

Contrast that with this street promo from cable network TV channel TNT, where cause (a conspicuous button invitation to “push to add drama”) equals epic effect on a quiet Flemish square. No one present – or viewing vicariously – missed the point, which is beautifully tied to TNT’s entire brand proposition.

2. Catch & Release

As the examples above demonstrate, the stunt itself is just the cost of entry. The entire point is to garner unpaid press coverage and, more importantly, extend considerable reach and frequency via online video and social media. This has the benefit of enabling the brand to make sure the video drives home the marketing message just the way they want. Capture your prankees’ reactions, then release the video of your escapades to the world.


Exhibit A: This recent promotion from Paramount to promote the DVD release of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which even takes us behind the curtain to see how they pulled it all off. The only thing better would have been to have one of the kids beam back as Leonard Nimoy.

Or this prank from Pepsi Max, which captures delighted passersby as they marvel at celebrity magician Dynamo as he levitates up the side of a London bus as a way of communicating the magical lightness of this low-cal soda brand.

Hundreds may see the live stunt. Thousands, even millions will see it online – provided you package it up in a compelling video experience. Sending the video to key media outlets and buying ad space on YouTube or elsewhere never hurts, either. You’d be surprised how many “viral” hits start that way.

3. The Crueler, The Better – But Kindness Trumps All

Some might find Tic Tac’s “Bad Breath” a little mean spirited. And Nivea's "Stress Test" prank - where airline travelers are singled out as wanted criminals – is in a category all its own. But most viewers likely think these are a hoot. Ditto for LG’s schadenfreude in the elevator shaft (not to mention its stage-fright-in-the-mens-room antics).

But in general, smaller-scale stunts like Sony’s “Carrie” promo are a bit more on target, as is a prank Benjamin Moore Paint pulled just before Halloween.

Of course, some may suspect the Moore prank was faked – how many painters can you line up after-hours in a remote location? But if true, this is a nice, harmless way to trick and treat you way to a successful promo.

Still, as fun as it can be to reach out and freak someone, kindness wins every time.

Witness Coca-Cola’s Happiness Pop-up Park, which is just the latest in a long line of small stunts – a Happiness Truck, a Happiness Vending Machine, a Happiness Drive-in Theater and many more – that take people by surprise and inspire instant brand love.

And just try to keep tears from being jerked when you view Honda’s recent wedding day prank, which is part of its “Start something special” campaign.


The bride-to-be’s family owns a number of Hondas, and even asked a local dealership for three CRVs to help with the wedding festivities. As Adweek puts it, they got a lot more than they expected - to the point that the brand may have upstaged the nuptials.

But as a stunt, this one drives home an emotional bond between consumers and their favorite brands.  

What's your view? Is this a brand disaster waiting to happen? Do consumers really enjoy being punked?

What rules or examples would you add to this list? And how can your brand score big by pulling a fast one on your customers?


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