By now, you should know what prankvertising is and why big brands use it to garner attention. Yes, it’s true that prankvertising really gets people’s attention. After all, if you were (unknowingly) part of a prank that involved a violent scene of two men fighting each other in an elevator and subsequently watched one of those men slip a noose around the other’s neck, pulling it tight, you’d probably remember that pretty well, wouldn’t you?

That’s exactly what the marketing firm Thinkmodo was banking on when they orchestrated this stunt to promote the 2013 movie “Dead Man Down.” But, when we consider the outlandish nature of a prank such as this, the real question becomes, how far is too far when it comes to scaring the daylights out of people in the name of advertising?

Are the costs really worth the potential negative effects of prankvertising? Big brands with big bank accounts might have the flexibility to hire a team of lawyers, should a lawsuit pop up as the result of a misguided prank, but what about a small business?

Generally speaking, small businesses must watch their backsides much more closely than big brands—and prankvertising is no different.

Contemplating Reward vs. Risk

The more outlandish the prank, the more viral it seems to go, which is why big brands keep pumping out new pranks—and they don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. But before you start planning out your own master prank, consider the rewards vs. the risks of taking it a bit too far. Yes, prankvertising generates buzz about your brand, but some marketing experts have made the argument that it also has the potential to soil your good reputation. Much of it comes down to what level you decide to ‘torture’ the people you’re pranking.

As one marketing agency puts it, “Prankvertising may inspire brand recognition, but it’s typically in a negative way that doesn’t concern itself with sales, but instead on documenting people’s reactions to terrifying stimuli and producing viral content thereafter.” So, if your main focus is to ascend the viral video staircase and become a Twitter or YouTube rockstar, then prankvertising may be the best way to go.

It all comes down to your goals for your brand. If you’d rather focus on the experience of the overall prank and communicate your brand to people in a way they’re almost certain not to forget (rather than concentrating on higher immediate sales), then prankvertising might be perfect for your business.

Pranks on Steroids

One of the biggest questions when it comes to prankvertising is, “How far is too far?” Well, everyone’s scale is set a little differently. What may be too far for some may be appropriate for others, and vice versa. That’s why prankvertising is still a questionable method of advertising. The proverbial line in the sand seems to be erased and redrawn almost every day. Because these prank scenarios tend to address emotions like fear, and deal with issues like death and danger, they test individuals’ personal limits to privacy, moral code and even social acceptance.

As Professor of Marketing Michael Solomon puts it, prankvertising represents “the dark side of the constant drumbeat to enhance consumer engagement.”

Just because some brands will stop at nothing for recognition doesn’t mean your brand should be doing the same. Pranks using nonprofessionals usually involve real risk and there are more liabilities than you can probably imagine.

For example, let’s go back to our “Dead Man Down” prank. What if the innocent bystander decides to take action when they see a man being choked? Suppose they draw a weapon of some sort, or have a heart attack from the stress of the situation? Even though the stress inflicted is ultimately unintentional and those who are pranked are eventually let in on the secret, disgruntled and offended prank victims can be a brand’s worst nightmare.

Consider this example: Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi were sued for $10 million by a California woman who claimed she had been stalked and terrorized by a man subsequent to her participation in an online campaign in 2008.

Is that the kind of press you want for your brand? We didn’t think so.

Lesson? Tread carefully if you do decide to prankvertise. While pranks may successfully increase brand recognition, they can really tarnish your reputation as an ethical business.