Prankvertising: An extreme form of guerrilla marketing that involves unsuspecting people “who have no idea that they’re playing a part in the creation of a video or TV spot that will (hopefully) go viral.” – The Pita Group, a branding agency in Connecticut.
AdWeek began using prankvertising in an April 1, 2013, post by David Gianatasio that was not an April Fool’s gag. “Are outrageous marketing stunts worth the risk?” the headline asked. Here’s the lead paragraph:
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.
The agency: Thinkmodo. The product: Dead Man Down, a movie.
Other recent examples of prankvertising have included wee-hours distress calls to unsuspecting people on behalf of Carlsberg beer and a shocking public-restroom event in the service of a British drunk-driving campaign. An Indian agency, Creativeland Asia, took a somewhat more playful (but still alarming) approach in a 2010 spot involving giant mangos.
Gianatasio writes in his April 1 post:
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.
There’s a precedent for the trend, he adds:
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 first person to use prankvertising in print (or pixels) may have been Zoli Erdos, a Bay Area startup advisor, editor, and blogger. In an August 3, 2006, blog post headlined “Prankvertising,” Erdos wrote that pranks “seem to become [sic] the new trend in advertising.” He cited two relatively mild spoofs, one for Agency.com (later renamed Designory) and one for Alltel.