Prankvertising: When Advertising and Practical Jokes Collide

Anyone who knows me well knows I love a good prank (I once waited inside a box for 20 minutes before springing out to scare a coworker).

In taking full advantage of local ghost tours and haunted houses during the Halloween season, I was reminded of how much the holiday involves playing on people’s fears. I too find it strangely satisfying to get a completely candid and unforgettable reaction (i.e. freak-out) from my friends and family… and to then share that experience with everyone I know.

I have to imagine the same is true for companies that have engaged in prankvertising. Prankvertising is a marketing strategy and growing trend in recent years that involves pranking, if not outright scaring, an unsuspecting individual or audience. The end product is a commercial spot or online video.


Prankvertising has proven particularly effective for the horror movie industry. Last year, the folks behind the “Carrie” remake nailed it with their “Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise” that terrified customers to the tune of nearly 60 million YouTube views. “Devil’s Due” followed suit this past January with a wildly successful “Devil Baby Attack” spot featuring a deranged baby and remote controlled stroller that has since garnered 48 million impressions on YouTube.

Prankvertisements don’t have to instill straight-up terror in the audience members involved, however. Carlsberg Beer induced panic in a video stunt where poker players called unwitting friends in the middle of the night asking them to come settle up the money they had lost that night. The spot seamlessly connected with Carlsberg’s “standing up for a friend” tagline.

Another beverage brand that has perfected prankvertising is Pepsi Max, thanks to the comic genius and off-roading skills of NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon. When a journalist later called Gordon out on the stunt, which he believed to be fake, Gordon exacted his viral revenge. The two videos have combined for more than 60 million YouTube views.

It’s clear that prankvertising can have huge benefits for brands. It offers those brands a unique promotional strategy that avoids the disengagement often associated with typical day-to-day advertisements. These ads can also be highly engaging and sharable – as evidenced by the viral nature of the ones noted above – which can attract new followers and brand advocates alike. This buzz can result in an extended shelf life for your brand’s ads, too (hence this post).

But prankvertising isn’t without its risks. Anyone can be brave enough to take the risk, but any prank should be approached with a lot of forethought. Also, as you can see, the videos typically involve elaborate planning and expensive setups, which could potentially lead to injuries and lawsuits – you might want to check with legal before pulling the trigger. And as with any joke, the idea can easily miss the mark or go too far and end up being offensive. Some would also argue that with more companies now prankvertising, it’s producing less original content than even just a year or two ago.

Before engaging in prankvertising, then, weigh these pros and cons. Personally, the prankvertising debate evokes a few of our seven core values here at SHIFT – while it can be a creative and undoubtedly risky strategy, you’ve got to ask if it’s smart and even honorable for your brand to pursue it.

If you need help answering these questions or planning pranks for your brand (or personal benefit), I’m always available.

Zach Burrus
Marketing Analyst

Photo Credit: Yahoo


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