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A Ghouling Trend in Marketing: Prank Advertising

In a New York City coffee shop, a horror-inspired prank gave customers more of a jolt than they expected.  A marketing stunt promoting the horror movie remake of “Carrie” used a fake wall, remote-controlled tables and chairs and spring-loaded bookshelves.  The people behind the stunt used the props to make it appear as though a patron was using telekinesis after someone knocked over her coffee.  A hidden camera captures it all, and the resulting video has more than 3 million YouTube views so far.

Officials in a small Pennsylvania township have told organizers of the “Naked and Scared” haunted house challenge to keep their pants on.  According to Shocktoberfest owner Patrick Konopelski, he has been notified that he is not allowed to have customers participate in a naked walk-through of his haunted house.   Konopelski is offering a “Naked and Scared” tour of his haunted house in Sinking Spring, Pa. The tour was intended to scare people by putting them in a vulnerable position, where they would not be protected by anything.

This continued trend in “pranking and shock marketing” follows LG’s attempt to demonstrate the superiority of their new High Definition Television by pranking unsuspecting job applicants, an ad that some feel, “does a stunning job selling the quality of LG IPS monitors.”   Utilizing “pranking” as a tool to gain attention and inspire potential customers to act favorably, by making a product or service purchase, is sparking renewed debate among some marketing professionals over the effectiveness and appropriateness of such tactics.  Does this type of “Candid Camera”  and “shock sells” advertising move consumers to make a purchase or does it merely provide entertaining or embarrassing, depending upon your perspective, YouTube videos?  And does the effort create a positive impression in the mind of consumers for the marketer’s brand?  One could argue that the millions of YouTube views of the videos are proof that viewers are paying attention to the antics, but are they being motivated to pay attention to the features and benefits of the product or service being pitched and gravitating towards a purchase decision?

In this competitive business environment and ever expanding digital and technologically advancing media opportunities, marketers certainly must investigate and pursue creative methods to inspire and motivate consumers to act.  Socially accepted norms are changing in-step with the rapid advances in communication technology, making it clear that what was “taboo” and “ineffective” marketing antics in the past is being reevaluated in today’s board rooms.  But with the implementation of such “out of the box” advertising methods come some risks to those who embark on testing the established marketing boundaries.

Recently news broke that Ms. Duick, an unknowing participant, who was punked in a 2008 Toyota advertising “stalking” campaign, is getting to execute her own punking on Toyota and their advertising agency after a California court agreed she could proceed with a $10-million (U.S.) lawsuit against Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi L.A., the agency behind the campaign, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, false advertising, and other misdeeds. She alleged that the “stalking” caused her difficulty in eating and sleeping, and prevented her from going to work.   The advertising industry is left mulling whether the trend toward engaging audiences in games and other interactive experiences that push the envelope might carry unforeseen risks.

“The trend in marketing is to get people more engaged, getting people to do things rather than just think things,” notes Dré Labre, a creative director with the agency Rethink Toronto. “So ideas tend to start going into the world of punking or alternate-reality gaming and exploring these types of things.  We need to take into consideration as advertising agencies that people hate advertising,” continues Mr. Labre. “We need to make it likeable, and being punked doesn’t sound like something that would make me like you.”

Taking creative risks can reap huge benefits or expensive and embarrassing results.  It’s important for marketing professionals to think through the decision before embarking on risky or bold ventures in advertising.  Performing careful due-diligence will often determine whether the results produce accolades or fiasco.

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