Advertisers use pranks to shock, amuse and sell products

It's a cheap and often effective way to get attention - play a prank on people, get some laughs, some viral attention, and maybe even sell a product. CBC Ad Guy Bruce Chambers explains why advertisers love 'prankvertising.'

Costs are relatively low and the chances of going viral high with 'prankvertising,' says CBC Ad Guy

This ad for LG TVs uses the familiar model of 'prankvertising,' or basing the advertisement on a prank. The supposed victims of the prank in this spot, however, were actors. (Mundo LG/YouTube)

Video pranks may have started with Candid Camera on TV in 1948. But since the birth of YouTube, marketers have been capitalizing on prank videos to get our attention through shock, humour, fear or tears.

In an example from last year, the non-profit organization States United to Prevent Gun Violence set up a fake used gun shop, in which "salespeople" explained to customers which people each gun had been used to kill.

Customers are horrified. But by creating a highly emotional situation, the video aimed to encourage gun buyers and viewers to consider the potential consequences of gun ownership.

What makes video pranks work as ads is their low-budget look and conspiratorial tone. They come across as more authentic than glossy commercials, and make us feel we and the brand are somehow collaborating — though there can be downsides.

In a 2014 ad, we see passersby finding an unattended baby stroller. When they pull back the blanket, a terrifying "devil baby" springs out at them.

It turns out to be an animatronic baby — part of a stunt to promote the movie Devil's Due. But what if one of the innocent participants was terrified into a heart attack? To reduce that risk, the maker of this video approached participants in advance and let them know that something "cool" was about to happen.

Another issue is that by now, almost everyone has seen dozens of video pranks — so it's difficult to find participants who respond with genuine surprise or terror.

In a 2013 Chilean video, we see people being interviewed for a job by a man with a big window behind him. Suddenly, the interviewees see a massive meteorite destroying the city outside the window.

There's total confusion as everyone looks on in horror.

But it turns out the "window" is actually an LG monitor that delivers highly realistic picture quality. And it also turns out the "applicants" were no more real than the window — the company used actors for the spot.

In a 2013 Pepsi video, we see a car salesman taking a customer for a test drive that rapidly goes out of control.

It was later revealed by that the salesman was an actor, faking his terror.

Of course, tipping off participants and using actors devalues the authenticity of prank videos.

But the bigger issue, according to one Toronto ad agency, is how overused, derivative and cruel prank videos are. So the ad firm, john st., created a parody video, mocking the trend of fear-based pranks in advertising. 

We may be overexposed to prank videos, and they may not be as real as they used to be.

But as long as they're relatively cheap to make and viewership remains high, marketers are happy to keep making people look foolish.

Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio. 

About the Author

Bruce began his career writing radio commercials for stations in Red Deer, Calgary and Toronto. Then in-house at a national department store, and then ad agencies with campaigns for major national and regional clients. For the past couple of decades, he's been a freelance creative director and copywriter for agencies in Calgary and Victoria. He began his weekly Ad Guy columns on CBC Radio in 2003.


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