Forget about April Fools’ Day. The days of anticipation, of knowing when the pranks were coming and where they were coming from, are long gone. Watching your back is no longer a suggestion; now, it’s a way of life. That is, if you want to get through the latest stream of big brand advertising spoofs with your head still on straight. What on Earth are we talking about, you ask?


It sounds just like what it is: prank-advertising. But, in some ways, prankvertising has become its own animal, especially with respect to how the big brands are using it to garner attention in mainstream media.

Try this analogy on for size: if prankvertising were a spit-ball, the target advertising market would be the teacher. No matter how gooey and gross that spit-ball is, when it hits the teacher’s leg, he or she is most certainly going to pay attention to the brand who threw it.

It seems that, at the very least, prankvertising is a strategic way to reinforce your brand. But how is it really done?

Pulling off the Prank

Pranks by definition are harmless jokes. They are designed for a laugh and momentary finger-pointing, but they usually aren’t meant for long-lasting influence. That is, until big brands got a hold of them.

It started with catvertising (Who knew there was an actual name for it?). Catvertising makes a lot of sense when you think about it. A couple years ago, marketers started to realize that, “Hey, no one pays attention to my creative marketing anymore. But look at all the YouTube hits on this cat video!”

Combine the two, and you have a stroke of marketing genius, at least so much as it gets people’s attention.

From seemingly ubiquitous catvertising, evolved prankvertising. While the act of putting an innocent bystander in front of a hidden camera to capture their reaction is nothing new (remember Candid Camera?), using that act to retain brand influence, and going to the absolute extreme to do so, is relatively new.

From in-person spoofs to digital pranks to targeted tweets, prankvertising has certainly become one of the most popular ways today for big brands with big bank accounts to flex their advertising muscles.

So, why is prankvertising so popular? Because it works.

Examples of Powerful Prankvertising

Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, points this out about big brand prankvertising: “The level of ‘over the topness’ has definitely risen. Agencies are desperately trying to get people to pay attention in a desperately crowded environment.”

Talk about hitting the nail on the head. Even prankvertisers are working harder and harder to come up with new spoofing techniques. The advertising market has become so saturated, that almost anything marketers can think of has already been done.

Some brands will do anything for that kernel of recognition, though. Let’s take a look at a few brands that have recently gone all out when it comes to prankvertising. WARNING: These are not for the faint of heart!

  • The Doomsday Example: LG and the Doomsday Scenario. What would you do if you were in the middle of a job interview and you saw the world coming to an end outside the window behind your interviewer? Well, that question gets answered (albeit sadistically) with the latest LG prankvertisement. You may never forget the brand name LG after a move like this, but you also may never be able to watch “Independence Day” again.
  • The PSA Example: To be completely honest, this #PubLooShocker drunk driving public service announcement by British road-safety campaign Think! scared our freakin’ pants off. We’d be surprised if this stunt didn’t cause any injuries in itself. Terrifying? Absolutely. Staged? Probably. Effective? We’re thinking YES.
  • The Twitter Example: Check out Charmin the Asguardian. Talk about tongue-in-cheek! This one certainly pushes the envelope, but we’re fans. While you typically don’t want to alienate/offend anyone with the language or wording of your advertising, the play on words here and the associated graphic are almost too good to be true. Coincidence that Charmin deleted the tweet? We think not. They were probably just watching their… well, you know.
  • The Best (Worst) Examples: ExFEARiential, the Stress Test, and Home Invasion Stunt. These prime examples of prankvertising are so multi-layered you may not ‘get it’ at first. John St. (an advertising agency in Canada) took it upon themselves to make fun of prankvertisers and the outlandish extremes they go to in order to get reactions. Just remember: These are SPOOFS ON SPOOFS.As you can see, prankvertising takes on many forms, but it usually only has one function: getting people’s attention.There are a number of risks associated with prankvertising, and realistically, from a small business standpoint, many marketing budgets will not have anywhere near the funds necessary to orchestrate this type of spoof-advertising.But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn the tricks of the trade when it comes to branding by paying attention to some of the most successful prankvertisers.Stay tuned for part 2 of this article where we will tackle the question of whether prankvertising is really worth the risks.