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Prank-vertising: More Shock Than Awe?

Shock value for shock's sake doesn't work in terms of meeting marketing objectives. It may get buzz but I doubt it sells product.
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It's getting harder and harder to break through the noise. And "Blurred Lines" wasn't just the song of the summer; it's standard operating procedure for how to navigate the media landscape. It's no surprise that brands are amping up their game in terms of impact. People lined up for blocks when Trojan gave away free vibrators last year to create demand, HBO put a dragon skeleton on the beach for Game of Thrones, and Oreo has been the freshest 100-year-old brand so far this year, kicking off the year with its "Dunk in the Dark."

But now we are witnessing a whole new level of impact with the advent of Punk-vertising: brands that play a trick on consumers and then release it for public consumption and marketing impact. And trust me, these ads are getting far more buzz than a cart full of vibrators.

It's also an indication of how brands are trying to be authentic, by not just selling product but by creating real experiences that engage their audiences.

Last year for the feature release of Skyfall, unsuspecting commuters entered an obstacle course to unlock their "007" with Coke Zero. It's so much fun to watch and impossible not to share when there is a unique experience unfolding before your eyes.

Pine Sol, a very traditional brand, punked a bunch of fastidious men earlier in the year. Thinking they were testing out new household cleaning products, the men were shocked to the see the infamous Pine Sol spokesperson crash through the wall. Hysteria ensued.

More recently, Nivea terrorized people into thinking they were a wanted criminal, making newspaper headlines and causing a lot of stress. Not necessarily an experience any one of us should want, but is it entertaining?

The question is: Does this type of advertising work?

Well, it depends. The pranks certainly nail their first two objectives: to break through the clutter and get people talking. They're also an indication of brands trying to be authentic, by not just selling a product but by creating unique experiences that engage their audiences.

But this only works if the overall emotion for the participants (and the viewers) is a positive one.

LG got a firestorm of criticism when it punked would-be job applicants into thinking a meteor had struck the building. Gone too far? Many think so.

Shock value for shock's sake doesn't work in terms of meeting marketing objectives. It may get buzz but I doubt it sells product.

Brands have to stay true to their trademark and true to what consumers know about them in order for any marketing to be effective. They can entertain and even surprise, but they must also delight. Delight comes from knowing who you are and what your consumers want.

So while Nivea was trying to show how to treat stressed skin, and LG was trying to show the realistic picture quality of their televisions, some say they went too far to shock and lost their brands' meanings in the process. Skyfall and Pine Sol, on the other hand, stayed very true to their characters while adding an element of surprise. That's a formula for marketing success.

Viral is the new black, and it's infiltrating all that is traditional about marketing. Even network news. I recently sat down with Fox & Friends who made a point of investigating the notion of Prank-vertising and I'd imagine this discussion is just beginning.