Prankvertising: Are Outrageous Marketing Stunts Worth the Risks?

Liabilities galore

You’re waiting for the elevator in an office building, minding your own business, perhaps lost in thought. The door slides open and, wham! You’re confronted by a scene of intense violence as two men grapple on the floor of the cramped car, fists flying. One combatant slips a cord around the other’s neck and pulls it tight, choking the life out of his adversary.

Surprise! These men are actors, and the scene—and more to the point, your reaction—is being filmed by viral marketing agency Thinkmodo as part of a headline-grabbing stunt to promote the movie thriller Dead Man Down.

In another such scenario, some dude’s phone chirps at 3 a.m., rousing him from a deep sleep. His best friend informs him he’s lost $400 in a back-room poker game and needs him to come downtown with the money, now, or else he won’t be allowed to leave (maybe not ever). Arriving at a decrepit building in a scary neighborhood, the friend makes his way past burly bouncers and a cockfight to drop off the cash. So far, so good. Once he’s tossed the dough on the table, the setup is revealed to be Duval Guillaume Modem’s latest promotional prank for Carlsberg beer. In the end, everyone raises a glass to true friendship—the campaign’s theme—as the cameras keep rolling.

Such marketing stunts are nothing new, but lately, brands seem to be taking the tactic to a new, extreme level, engineering increasingly sophisticated, hair-raising scenarios to break through the clutter, confusion and complexity of modern media to titillate consumers and generate free media coverage. These stunts involve, to varying degrees, average people who often have no idea at the outset that they’re taking part in the making of a commercial or a video designed to go viral. Such efforts blur the lines between artifice and reality, fusing fact and fantasy in ways that can be invasive, sadistic and potentially risky. “The level of ‘over the topness’ has definitely risen,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “Agencies are desperately trying to get people to pay attention in a desperately crowded environment.”

Staging outré pranks that generate massive amounts of attention has become the specialty of Belgian agency Duval Guillaume, whose “Push to Add Drama” campaign for cable network TNT is easily the boldest and best known example of this new wave. When passersby (not professional actors) pressed big red buttons deployed on city streets, overblown, blockbuster-movie-style gun battles and mayhem broke out. The first clip in the series garnered more than 44 million YouTube views in less than a year, and its sequel got 8 million views over a few months. Duval’s Carlsberg poker video, unveiled March 13, is more visceral and provocative. It earned 1 million views in its first four days online.

Such stunts are expensive to stage and logistically complex in terms of extra staffing, pre-production and execution. Yet many execs say it’s impossible to draw direct correlations between stunts and sales. Most clients seem satisfied with generating high levels of social sharing, with online views providing substantial savings compared to paid media.

“From our perspective … it will more than pay for itself in earned media and ‘share of conversation.’ That, in turn, translates into brand worth, which in turn drives sales,” says Thomas Moradpour, vp, global marketing at Carlsberg. “We won’t be able to track a direct bump—too many variables—but we’ll measure the impact on brand health and equity through our brand trackers in all of our key international markets.”

Prankvertising: A Risky Business
Contemporary prankvertising echoes Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, notes Michael Solomon, industry consultant and professor of marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The show pre-dated the reality TV craze by almost 50 years, incorporating unsuspecting subjects into oddball scenarios in public places.

The difference today, Solomon says, is that marketers are staging “pranks on steroids,” upping the ante in almost every imaginable way and probing darker territory—with the sponsor’s name attached. Scenarios that trade on fear, death and danger test the limits of personal privacy and social acceptability. The genre, he says, represents “the dark side of the constant drumbeat to enhance consumer engagement.” The Dead Man Down elevator prank is an especially potent example. “We engaged people by putting that strangulation [a plot point in the movie] into a real-life setting” and challenging folks to examine their own reactions when coming upon such a scene, explains Thinkmodo co-founder James Percelay, who stages wild marketing stunts with agency partner Michael Krivicka.

Using nonprofessionals involves real risk, because reactions can, of course, be unpredictable. What if someone draws a weapon and charges into an elevator? What if someone suffers a heart attack? Mary Hutchings Reed, an attorney with Chicago law firm Winston & Strawn who specializes in entertainment and media issues, says, “There’s a lot to worry about: the liability during the event, intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

For example, a California woman sued Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi for $10 million, claiming she was terrorized by unwanted and upsetting emails and unable to eat, sleep or work following her participation in a 2008 online campaign. A fictional “soccer hooligan” seemed to be stalking her, at one point claiming he was en route to her house. She even received a (fake) bill from a hotel manager for a TV set the no-goodnik supposedly smashed. (“The matter has been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties,” according to Saatchi.)

Thinkmodo’s Percelay is mindful of the pitfalls. “We go to great lengths to ensure that our videos feel spontaneous and unrehearsed,” he says. “However, we don’t expose our clients and their brands to undue liability.”

For Dead Man Down, the agency generated a bogus call for focus-group subjects. Staffers vetted respondents, and a select few were instructed to take the elevator. “Once people saw the ‘crime’ and started to react, we had a team standing by to intercede,” says Percelay. “The two actors in the elevator also were instructed on when to reveal that they were not really fighting. There were no incidents, and the participants all enjoyed the experience. They were compensated afterwards for their increase in heart rate.”

Thinkmodo is also responsible for a recent stunt promoting the DVD release of horror flick The Last Exorcism Part II in which the agency tricked out a beauty parlor’s mirror so it would flash chilling images of a “dead” girl featured in promotions for the movie.

But are pranks selling tickets? “Measuring a specific ROI from a high-profile stunt campaign is not a simple thing in our business,” notes Matt Gilhooley, vp, interactive of CBS Films, which produced The Last Exorcism Part II. “Box office is the result of a wide variety of well-aligned tactics and circumstances, and the goal of a stunt, such as our beauty shop scare, is often to earn attention versus buying attention with an audience. When it’s successful, the attention you earn greatly exceeds the cost of buying an equal amount of exposure with that audience.”

Percelay says that after about a month in the marketplace, the campaign received some $1.6 million in earned television media, on top of significant online coverage and view counts. The film, he adds, will be quite profitable for the studio, raking in more than $12.5 million in box office to date off a $5 million budget.

Clouding Reality
When it comes to outrageous ad stunts, consumers and industry professionals often question the veracity of the footage, convinced in some cases that a prank simply cannot be real. Indeed, the level of “reality” varies widely depending on the nature of the stunt in question.

Last October, LG designed an elevator prank in Amsterdam to tout the lifelike colors of its IPS monitors. The car’s bottom was fitted with the hi-res screens, and riders were made to believe the floor had suddenly fallen away beneath their feet. “We had a back-up plan for when we did not get the right responses, including a handful of acting extras,” says Rogier Vijverberg, founder and cd of SuperHeroes, the agency that produced the stunt. “Some, not all, made the cut in the final edit. The rest is real people.”

Reality’s even scarcer in a prank this past February from The Weather Channel that had rain unexpectedly falling inside a Miami bus shelter. The stunt, via marketing shop Iris, touting TWC’s Android app, was almost entirely faked but no less effective for using actors in a controlled environment. “We couldn’t just film unsuspecting consumers sitting in a bus stop and soak them in the hopes they would understand, thank us for the opportunity and sign a waiver, so we ended up hiring actors,” says Matthew Eby, TWC’s senior director, digital product marketing. (That said, the actors didn’t know exactly when they’d get drenched, so their reactions were genuine.)

Sweating It Out
This fusion of real-world experience and multimedia elements has led to some seriously surreal executions, and no recent stunt goes further than Felix & Lamberti’s airport ambush in Hamburg, Germany. Filmed in January, the prank was designed to tout Stress Protect, a deodorant from Beiersdorf’s Nivea brand.

Here’s how it went down: Once subjects arrived at the airport, they were secretly photographed, and then those images were flashed on televisions and plastered on hastily printed faux newspapers. The headlines screamed “Suspect on the Run,” while bogus newscasts identified the “perps” as “dangerous and unpredictable.” The PA system reverberated with physical descriptions—height, hair color, clothing—and the urgent message: “The following person is wanted … notify airport authorities immediately.”

The prankees grew increasingly confused and disoriented as the deception unfolded, then appeared mightily relieved when the punch line was revealed. “Everything was under control all the time,” says agency founder and cd Felix Schulz, noting there were no fainting spells, outbursts, thrown punches or serious complaints from those subjected to the Candid Camera-meets-The Fugitive scenario. “We hired friends who lured their best friends to the airport so that we could be relatively sure that we would get their OK to be broadcast later, but they were totally clueless. This was a risk, but it was worth it because we got the real emotions you wouldn’t get with actors.”

Not everyone agrees that these stunts are harmless, or that taking certain precautions absolves clients and agencies of their moral obligations. “Just because the ‘victim’ went home happy doesn’t make it right,” says Bill Green, strategy chief at Noble Mouse and an influential industry blogger. “‘Any PR is good PR’ has been replaced by ‘the end justifies the means.’ Was everyone in the airport in on it? If not, imagine strangers thinking you were wanted. Is that really worth it to the brand?”

“You don’t want your brand associated with some outrageous level of mayhem and tragedy,” adds Syracuse’s Thompson. “Although it may get people’s attention, this scary-violent material … seems to have a greater potential for backfiring, if not in litigation, then in the greater possibility of seeming offensive or in bad taste.”

And yet, the public’s seemingly endless appetite for being part of the show enables stunt makers to push the limits of acceptability. “In this age of anonymity, many people probably feel a perverse sense of flattery for being singled out,” says SJU’s Solomon. For some, just being part of these marketing campaigns becomes a fusion of flesh and pixels, the ultimate augmented reality.

That’s something marketers are eager to exploit. So, expect the outrageousness—and possibly outrage—to get ratcheted up as they seek to snare an increasingly distracted, cynical and fragmented audience. “Each one will need to be more outlandish than the one before just to break through,” as blogger and ad exec Green puts it.

Says Solomon, “I’m guessing advertisers will continue to push the envelope until some litigation throws cold water on the fire.”