What would you do?

So you’ve had a few drinks and you’re now working your way through a long list of songs to sing at your local karaoke bar. Suddenly, the curtains are pulled and you see a setup that the Wizard of Oz would envy. You find out that if you keep singing, you’ll be broadcast into most NYC taxis, in Times Square, and on the Verizon Center Jumbotron.

Do you keep singing?

That was the real-life question posed by Heineken and Weiden+Kennedy during its Carol Karaoke, a branded prank video they successfully pulled off during the past holiday season. They did an amazing job of creating an outside-the-box brand experience, further pushing ahead the “Prankvertising” trend.

But some other agencies and brands have been lampooned for their efforts/antics in this space. So what’s the difference between a good prank and a bad one?

The Bad:

When the story that drives the prank is off-brand, it can become so confusing that it’s no longer effective.

For its Stress Test prank video, Nivea singled out people waiting in airports, featuring them over the intercom, on printed newspapers, and on staged TV news programs in the waiting area, putting out All Points Bulletins on each of them. The stressed individuals were relieved when policemen brought them deodorant, made by Nivea, and didn’t apprehend them for mysterious offenses.

Orwellian-induced stress doesn’t make Nivea deodorant enticing. Instead of pranking, Nivea could (and should) pull off a more contrived plot and position itself as a sophisticated competitor to Old Spice (think Nivea meets Apple’s “1984” or Samsung’s “Imagine”).

For one of its prank videos, LG outfitted a room with its phenomenally crisp TV screens to make it appear as though these screens were actually windows. Individuals, brought in on the premise that they were interviewing for a job, watched in horror as a rocket crashed into the city outside the “window” as part of its Reality or Ultra Reality?

LG stayed on-brand for this, but the timing was off. It was released in the middle of a highly publicized civil war in Syria, and many countries have experienced uprisings and rebellions since 2011. Yes, LG is known for being devious, but a little cultural consideration goes a long way. Instead of an Armageddon bomb, perhaps they could have had a 7-plagues swarm of locusts crash into the windows or something along those less controversial lines.

These were both clever pranks, but they didn’t take the larger implications of the pranks into account, which leads to controversy and confusion and distracts from the brand’s story.

The Good:

Conversely, a good prank is a memorable surprise that brings the brand’s story to life.

England’s Department for Transport shocked peaceful pub-goers by hurling a crash test dummy through a mirror in the bathroom as a PSA about the dangers of drunk driving. It’s terrifying and perfectly on-brand. (It’s encouraging to see a government agency being so innovative, creative, and impactful.)

Similarly, Thinkmodo left no room for confusion when it brought telekinesis to a café in the West Village in its stunt for the movie Carrie.

Those two pranks were scary, but they don’t all have to be. Toys “R” Us pranked a bunch of kids by taking them to one of its locations and letting them run free, instead of going on their scheduled field trip to the forest. While yes, of course, the kids should learn to appreciate the forest (and hopefully they still went on their forest field trip at a later date), the pure magic and utter delight that painted their faces when the bus driver told them the news said it all.

Good pranks abide by a brand’s overarching story. Toys “R” Us’ interrupted the day with toys. Thinkmodo’s stunt for Carrie made everyone’s day a little supernatural. England’s Department of Transit bashed its sobering message through the mirror. These pranks make sense and bring the brand message to life, turning it into an experience.


By pulling people into something extraordinary, prankvertising has the chance to break routine and bring tangible life to marketing and branding. In a way, there’s nothing more considerate than a good prank. It takes time, effort, dedication, and a great story to make it work effectively. While it’s not a guarantee that yours will work, it’s important to keep your brand’s message and story at the center of the effort.

Any thoughts on Prankvertising? Have you seen any you’ve found effective? Let us know in the comments and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.

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