Big marketing stunts, when done right, are a great way to earn lots of media time and drive millions of viewers to your own channels.
Pranks seem to play especially well. Viral marketing pranks invite social media shares for their sheer entertainment value. Very public pranks can earn media mentions, and then there is a double-dip effect when something goes viral, which in itself becomes a story.
Still, it can be hard to track the ROI of a prank, even one that goes viral. And AdWeek’s David Gianatasio argues that the risks of something goes wrong might outweigh the benefits.
Then again, it is pretty easy just to get excited over video view counts of 20 or 30 million.
Below are 9 marketing pranks that went viral and became stories themselves. Some of these you will recognize. Where we could, we tried to indicate how the companies measured the success of each prank
To promote the reboot of the classic horror film Carrie, New York viral marketing specialists Thinkmodo set up a Carrie-like scene in a New York City coffee shop. A handful of actors and effects coordinators completely terrified a bunch of customers by making everyone think a young woman’s out-of-control telekinesis was set off when a guy accidentally spilled coffee on her Macbook.
Thanks to a tethered stuntman and some spring-loaded props, the stunt looked real. The video Thinkmodo put together after the fact quickly went viral, earning 60 million-plus YouTube views, coverage in news media around the world, and a gold award in the Key Art Awards’ theatrical category.
“This thing easily earned $10 million in traditional media spots,” Thinkmodo co-founder James Percelay told Bloomberg. “We were way cheaper than that.”
Antwerp, Belgium, marketing firm Duval Guillaume probably strained some friendships with its prank on behalf of beer giant Carlsberg. On three different occasions, the company put together a scenario in which someone in on the prank calls a friend in the middle of the night and asks for 300 euro, lost during an underground poker game.
The friends arrive at some old industrial space around 5 a.m. and are met with what looks like the set of a John Woo film: pit fights, caricatures of a Hard Boiled-style underworld, and even birds flying around. They have to navigate through all that before they arrive at the poker room, where they have to lay 300 euros on the table in front of the apparent gangster.
Then, everyone reveals themselves, and beers are cracked open. You couldn’t legally pull this one off in the United States. David Gianatasio at AdWeek nominated the spot for his ad of the day in mid-March 2013 and said the video got 250,000-plus views within the first 48 hours of posting.
“From our perspective … [prank marketing] will more than pay for itself in earned media and ‘share of conversation,’” Carlsberg VP of Global Marketing Thomas Moradpour told Gianatasio. “That, in turn, translates into brand worth, which in turn drives sales. We won’t be able to track a direct bump — too many variables — but we’ll measure the impact on brand health and equity through our brand trackers in all of our key international markets.”
While we are talking about Duval Guillaume, check out the agency’s “A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square,” which it organized for television network TNT.
It’s not clear whom SuperHeroes Amsterdam ultimately pranked with this video for television manufacturer LG. The video shows people getting into an elevator, which malfunctions, and the lights start to flicker. LG installed screens in the floor, and when they lights in the elevator go out, the screens show a lifelike floor falling down the elevator shaft. It appears convincing enough that the people in the elevator shriek and jump.
Dutch marketer Laurens Bianchi points out on Social Media Chimps that the shots from above show both the bottom and the side of the elevator shaft, two perspectives that cannot be seen simultaneously with a two-dimensional screen.
Either way, it was convincing enough for viewers to get 2 million views in the video’s first 48 hours online, a win for LG … regardless of who the actual target of the prank was.
The UK Department of Transportation has an ongoing program called THINK! that warns citizens about the dangers of drunken driving, and in 2013 the team reached out to advertising giant Leo Burnett London for a literal scared-straight campaign.
The video above shows various guys in a normal pub bathroom, but the bathroom’s mirror has been fitted to recreate a collision in which a pedestrian’s head goes through the driver’s windshield.
It’s startling stuff.
From the video, it isn’t clear whether the guys who were pranked actually got THINK!’s message or just a massive rush of adrenaline. The video was then promoted with the very British hashtag #publooshocker.
This prank is straight-up rude. In a bid to showcase how Nivea deodorant helps users deal with stress, German agency Felix & Lamberti (the founders have since moved on to start new agencies: Lamberti in Berlin and Labamba in Hamburg) picked out random people in an airport, took photos of them, and then issued announcements identifying them as a wanted person. This actually looked like a scene from The Bourne Identity.
A hidden camera caught the target reacting to all of this notices, looking increasingly stressed. Most of the people actually froze out of fear. Finally, security guards came around and asked, “Are you stressed?” before presenting the deodorant.
Nivea Germany’s official video doesn’t play if you access it from an American IP address (the video above is a copy), but the view count on the official channel stands at more than 7.5 million. That’s almost one view for every 10 German citizens.
This video went so viral so quickly that news may not have reached many people that it was actually a very subtle commercial.
Watch the clip above. It all seems like a real interview on first viewing. On follow-up views, though, you notice that there is no indication of which media outlet is doing the interview. Or that the ball, after breaking right in its trajectory, appears to enter a wormhole right before Longoria makes that catch.
Or that there are Gillette logos on either side of Longoria’s head.
It’s all very subtle — so subtle that it’s unclear how much the video did for Gillette’s brand. But the investment appears to have been pretty low:
“I shot the actual Gillette commercial for like six or seven hours that day and I’ve heard a few things about that,” Snopes reports Longoria as saying. Longoria actually shot a much more production-heavy commercial for Gillette that same day, and this video was put together almost seemingly as an afterthought.
“But that footage of me catching the ball there literally took two minutes to shoot on a handheld camera. It’s crazy. That’s how people become famous on YouTube. You put up a video that goes viral and before you know it, over a million people have seen it.”
Forty-three million views and counting on the official YouTube channel for this prank.
Pepsi hired agency TBWA\CHIAT\DAY to put together this prank in which makeup artists disguised NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and sent him out to test drive a Camaro. Gordon showed up at a dealership looking like Walter White before he broke bad, then took the poor car salesman on such an intense ride that the salesman almost got violent once the car came to a stop.
Gordon had to rush the reveal and the product placement at the end because the salesman’s emotions were running too hot. But it still made for a hilarious video.
Wikipedia lists this one as “2007 Boston bomb scare,” which has different connotations these days. But back in 2007, agency Interference, Inc. was just trying to innocently promote a movie.
On January 31, police around Boston received calls about suspicious devices covered in LED lights around the city. The devices depicted characters from the Cartoon Network show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a series that was ramping up marketing efforts for its upcoming film.
But the characters — called Mooninites — terrified some onlookers.
“It had a very sinister appearance,” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley would later describe the things. “It had a battery behind it, and wires.”
And so a handful of Lite-Brites sent citizens and media into a brief panic on a cold winter day. That led to hilarious stories, such as this one from CNN, which begins as follows:
“Authorities have arrested two men in connection with electronic light boards depicting a middle-finger-waving moon man that triggered repeated bomb scares around Boston on Wednesday and prompted the closure of bridges and a stretch of the Charles River.”
Ultimately, the parent company, Turner Media, had to pay $2 million in damages — half to the city of Boston and half to the Department of Homeland Security — for the hoax. The movie was still a mild success: Its $5.5 million box office haul was twice the cost of production and the marketing stunt.
Let’s end this list on an uplifting moment.
Not all pranks need to be mischievous. Sometimes, it’s enough to surprise and delight. That idea has been at the core of Canadian airline WestJet’s marketing strategy for the last several years, and it has earned the company a nice reputation.
The video above was a stunt the WestJet team put together just before Christmas 2013. “[W]ith the help of 175 WestJet volunteers, three airports and Santa himself, we made a Christmas miracle happen for more than 250 guests on two Calgary-bound flights,” the company wrote on its blog.
For WestJet’s continued efforts in establishing itself as an egalitarian, customer-focused airline, StrategyOnline.ca named it one of the Brands of the Year in Canada in 2014.