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.

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