Prankvertising and Going Viral

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Prankverts are those strange PR stunts staged by brands in the hope that the resulting hilarity that’s captured on film will go viral and be shared through social media. Admit it – you’ve watched at least one of them on YouTube. They’re often compelling viewing and involve us laughing in one way or another, often at the expense of the subjects of the PR stunt that are being pranked.

They’re arguably a product of the digital age and a way that advertisers can draw attention to their brands in a way that doesn’t make the viewer feel as if they’re being marketed to. They can also generate a huge return on investment if one small prank can be amplified to millions of viewers across the internet. Often it’s the subjects of a video that are being pranked by a brand, but sometimes a brand likes to prank the public as a whole in an April Fools-style stunt (see Paddy Power below).

Here are 4 examples of prankverts that have hit the headlines in recent times, with some analysis on whether they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to:

Carrie: Coffee Shop Pranking

I’ll start with a high budget, high impact, and highly popular prankvert that was made as a PR stunt for the 2013 film remake of Carrie. The stunt pranked innocent members of the public that were sitting in a coffee shop. The room around them started to change and supernatural events seemingly starting to occur in front of their eyes. It was an elaborate set up straight out of Hollywood that was so successful not just because of the idea, but the way the prankvert was shot and presented to the viewer in a way that let them in on every aspect of the prank.

In terms of a one-off stunt for a film release, there surely wasn’t a more powerful way of letting the public know about the premise of the movie and what it has to offer. It has so far amassed over 57m views on YouTube and I highly doubt that issuing a simple film trailer would have resulted in the same amount of impacts.

Pepsi: Roadside Carnage

Earlier this year Pepsi modified a digital billboard attached to a bus shelter in Central London to create an illusion to those waiting for their bus. In a stunt that cost the price of some CGI production and the hiring of one 6-sheet, it’s managed to amass over 6m views on YouTube and produce an extremely large return on investment. It’s also interesting to note that there isn’t a can of Pepsi in sight during any of the prank. Not only did it bring attention to the brand, but also showcased an innovative way of using roadside digital 6-sheets to their full potential. It would have been great to see a bit more linkage between the prank and the brand, but the stunt nevertheless worked flawlessly.

Toys R Us: Diverting a School Bus

In 2013 Toys R Us released a prankvert in which children were the butt of the joke. The toy store filmed kids as it took them on a school trip to what they thought was part of a science and nature lesson, only to reveal during the journey that they’re actually travelling to Toys R Us.

It sure is cute, but it’s also incredibly forced and unashamedly taking advantage of the children involved that probably don’t truly understand what’s going on. The video also received some backlash in regards to how it promotes toys over education to the younger generations. These reasons may be why the effort reached only 1m views on YouTube (with nearly 3,000 dislikes) and failed to go viral. It’s proof that successful prankverts do need to be based on strong ideas and that a high budget with a polished final output doesn’t necessarily equal certain praise.

Paddy Power: Cutting Down the Amazon

This Paddy Power prankvert is different as it doesn’t go down the conventional route of showing a video of unfortunate passers-by being pranked. Instead, Paddy Power decided to play on its controversial reputation and prank the world as a whole. Less than a week before the start of the 2014 World Cup an image taken from a helicopter was posted online that appeared to show an area of the Amazon chopped down to spell out “C’mon England!”. What resulted was a barrage of hate from internet users, including some high-profile figures from the world of celebrity and business.

Paddy Power Response

Paddy Power’s #savetherainforest response to their initial prankvert.

A day later and Paddy Power spilled the beans on the stunt and went into very precise detail about how they hired graphic designers to make it seem as if they’d chopped down part of the Amazon. It even went one step further in directing visitors to a site about preventing deforestation and planting new trees. Some sceptics still called foul, saying that Paddy Power cut down the trees and then quickly made up an excuse after the unprecedented amount of negative reaction. It’s not true though – this stunt was so believable that it got the whole world talking, and left the whole world with egg on its face. Even Paddy Power can play nicely every once in a while.

Bonus Prankvert

Ever wondered about the best way to advertise a toilet cleaning product?


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