Prankvertising: Are Outrageous Marketing Stunts Worth the Risks?

Liabilities galore

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.)

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