A few weeks ago, a two-and-a-half minute video called Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise circulated online. The clip offered a behind-the-scenes look at how a team of filmmakers played a prank on unsuspecting New York City coffee shop patrons by building a fake wall, outfitting an actor with a wire and harness, and then cuing an actress to freak out in public and use her magical powers to suspend the guy in midair. The coffee shop was a real coffee shop—’sNice in Manhattan’s West Village—and the looks of horror on customers’ faces were genuine. The prank was funny and fascinating, and has since been watched more than 46 million times on YouTube and discussed on both Good Morning America and CNN.
It’s also, technically speaking, a commercial.
The prank and resulting video were a promotional stunt for Sony Pictures’ (SNE) Carrie remake; this becomes evident when the movie’s title and release date appear at the end. It was produced by the viral marketing firm Thinkmodo, which in February made a similar promo for The Last Exorcism Part II. In that one, Thinkmodo scared hair salon customers by making the image of a possessed-looking woman appear whenever they looked in the mirror.
On the Today show, hosts Natalie Morales and Matt Lauer talked about the demon-in-the-mirror stunt and then pranked their own NBC correspondents with it. “That’s millions of dollars worth of air time for our client, and it was free,” says James Percelay, co-founder of Thinkmodo. “We figured out a way to get their name mentioned without so much as a media buy.”
The need to be shared and go viral is the new orthodoxy of online media. But it’s also something that’s incredibly difficult to engineer. Some expertly crafted vignettes never attract more than a few thousand views, while a video of a cat with its head in a box gets seen by millions. That’s because casual link-clickers seek amusement, not artistry, and ad agencies know there’s nothing more entertaining than a really good prank.
For a Halloween commercial this year, Procter & Gamble toothpaste brands Crest and Oral-B fed vegetable-flavored candy to children (not actors) and filmed their reactions. It wasn’t pretty. The kids shouted, ran around in circles, and claimed that everything tasted like poop. “I threw up,” says one girl in the video. “You threw up? OK,” says a candy supervisor, jotting it down on his clipboard.
“We told the parents what was happening, but the kids’ reactions were 100 percent genuine,” says Rishi Dhingra, marketing director for P&G’s North American oral-care division. Dhingra says prank videos are “a new tactic” that these brands had never tried before. But even a company as stodgy as Procter & Gamble recognizes that it has to get a little bit weird—and selling your product by making a small child throw up artichoke-flavored candy is pretty weird—if it wants to get passed around on the Internet.
For April Fools’ Day another P&G brand, Scope, pretended to launch a bacon-flavored mouthwash. “Nobody wants bacon-flavored mouthwash,” Dhingra says. But almost half a million people watched the video when it aired, and one particularly gullible CNBC reporter even called P&G to find out if it was real.
There are plenty of other examples: Last year, TNT (TWX) promoted its dramas by placing a red button in a Belgian town square that, when pushed by passersby, caused cinematic fight scenes and shootouts to erupt on the streets. A New Zealand brewery called Tui recently hooked a house’s plumbing system to beer kegs so beer flowed through its faucets and showers instead of water. And Toys “R” Us told kids they were going on an educational field trip, but then took them to the toy store instead.
There is, of course, one problem with using unsuspecting bystanders’ genuine emotional reactions to sell your product: Sometimes they don’t like it. In 2009 a California woman sued Toyota Motor and its ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, for $10 million, claiming that, as part of a promotional campaign for the Toyota Matrix, she had been tricked into believing she was being stalked. (The lawsuit was later settled.)
That’s probably why one seemingly dangerous prank campaign—a three-and-a-half minute Pepsi MAX commercial in which Nascar driver Jeff Gordon terrifies a sweater-vested car salesman by doing doughnuts and speeding like a crazy person during a test drive—is thought to have been staged: According to automotive blog Jalopnik, the purported 2009 Chevy Camaro driven in the video is actually a 2013 model, and the car salesman is an actor.
“We aren’t allowed to talk about that,” says Dal Wolf, executive producer of Gifted Youth, the advertising division of comedy website Funny or Die, which produced the commercial. “I think the conversation about whether it’s real or not is the best thing about the video,” says Carisa Bianchi, president of TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles, the agency that came up with the prank. “That’s the inherent beauty of videos like this.”
PepsiCo’s big on pranks right now. It also has a series of extended commercials featuring Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving dressed up as a pot-bellied old man named Uncle Drew who schools people during a pickup basketball game. The first “Uncle Drew” spot launched in the spring of 2012 and currently has more than 27.5 million YouTube views, and a 30-second version aired during the NBA Finals last year. A third video, which premièred on Oct. 28 and already has 3.1 million views, doesn’t even pretend to be real, as the multicultural, gender-balanced crowd of onlookers who are all drinking Pepsi MAX at a random basketball game are enough to give even the most credulous viewer pause.
“We think of these videos as the new form of engagement,” says Thinkmodo’s Percelay. He won’t say how much Thinkmodo charged Sony for the Carrie prank, but he will say it’s a lot less than the cost of producing and buying airtime for a traditional TV commercial. “This thing easily earned $10 million in traditional media spots,” he says. “We were way cheaper than that.” Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise has been seen by about 67 million television viewers, according to media monitor TVEyes, in addition to those who watched it online.
Despite the viral orientation of prank ads, those old-fashioned TV viewers are still the most important ones: “We don’t go viral just to be seen online,” Percelay says. “Our focus isn’t YouTube—it’s still traditional media.”