Prankvertising: Are Outrageous Marketing Stunts Worth the Risks?

Liabilities galore

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 “‘Any PR is good PR’ has been replaced by ‘the end justifies the means.’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.” 

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