Devil Babies, Comets, and Clowns’ Heads: The Twisted World of ‘Prankvertising’

Let’s say you’re walking down the street somewhere and come across an abandoned infant stroller. You hear a newborn crying helplessly, so you lean over to check when — suddenly — you are given the jump scare of your life. Up pops a baby more frightening than anything Rosemary herself ever laid eyes on. Wearing hellhound’s expression, the baby lets out a hideous caterwaul loud enough to pass for an air raid siren. Then its head spins and white foam jets liberally from its little mouth. Naturally, you back away, if not turn on your heels and run altogether.

Welcome to the ostrobogulous world of prankvertising, a place where marketers force novel encounters with their brands by staging elaborate jokes that usually involve startling unsuspecting victims. It’s an unpredictable place, this world of prankvertising, depending as it does on gags, tricks, scares and punking.

The baby episode is part of a promotional that took place last winter in an effort to drive audiences to see “Devil’s Due.” It’s probably the best-known instance of prankvertising, though there have certainly been others. In 2013, for instance, LG managed to convince several job applicants that they were witnessing the apocalypse. In one final example, the United Kingdom’s Department of Transportation took an unorthodox approach to the drunk driving problem by scaring the bejesus out of a few pub customers. The ploy seems to have worked, though. In a two-year timespan, the video’s gotten more than 13 million views.

The logic behind prankvertising is simple: Take the mischievous energy of MTV’s and and boil it down to a 2–3 minute segment. Audiences love gags and cockamamie, and if it helps them connect with a specific brand or product then so much the better. It’s a way to cut through the relentless clutter of billboard ads, television spots and print copy that most consumers ignore. It’s visceral, direct and — best of all — memorable. You might not even see the movie posters, but nobody forgets a macabre robot baby.

But there are downsides, too. Many a viewer has expressed concern over potential liability issues connected to a prank gone wrong. What if somebody has a heart attack after being overly frightened? How do these companies handle that? Do they conduct secret health reviews beforehand? Is that even legal?

And then there’s the issue of tastefulness. LG might have gotten away with its end-of-the world punk job, but devil babies and bloody crash victims raise new questions. What’s acceptable? What’s not?

And let’s not forget those occasions when the gag has little to do with the brand at all. The prank might be memorable, but what of the product? In all the examples thus far, the stunt at least made sense in the context the brand. The comet gag, for instance, purportedly demonstrates the clarity of LG’s oversized TV screen. But what about the time when Pepsi Max toyed with the mirrors in a movie theater, showing filmgoers gruesome clown heads in place of their own reflections? Memorable? Sure. Brand enhancing? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Perhaps most disappointing, audiences aren’t nearly as curious about the brand as they are about the authenticity of the pranks themselves. Have these people really been punked, or are they just paid actors? The answer is anyone’s guess. Nobody knows but the tight-lipped production crews that staged them, and they’re not talking.

Whatever the answer, prankvertising appears to be picking up steam. Audiences seem to enjoy it, after all. But does it really work? Is chutzpah a credible tool for creating new customers? The jury’s still out on that one, so let’s put it this way: Have YOU gotten around to seeing “Devil’s Due” yet?

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