What would your first reaction be if a company, trying to sell you a product, decided to scare you out of your wits? Maybe you’d fire off an angry e-mail, complain about it on Twitter, or simply avoid that company like the plague, right?

Well, what about if the company decided to scare someone else for your enjoyment? You don’t have to provide an answer to that one, because the public has already spoken.

Last week, Ford got into the Halloween spirit by finding 30 strangers, asking if they’d participate in a filmed test drive, and then instructing them to go through a specific car wash on the way to the shoot. The car wash just so happened to be set up as a comfortable home for zombies and demons, sending the oblivious reviewers into a screaming frenzy. Check out the video here:

The ad has already racked up over a million views on YouTube and was celebrated as AdWeek’s “Ad of the Day”.

There was none of the cliche car ad elements: no winding hills, no babies for the car’s intelligent braking systems to protect, no price comparison to competitors.

As Brook Johnston, a copywriter at Toronto’s brand agency FUSE Marketing Group, said, “The Ford stunt is fun. But what does it say about the brand or the specific vehicle? You don’t always need a direct tie, but it helps. A much better example was LG’s “Meteor” prank [linked here] because it paid off on the brand’s promise: screens so clear, you’ll think it’s real life. There’s connective tissue there. It makes sense.”

“That being said, it does take some cajones to freak people out courtesy of your brand,” Johnston says in an e-mail. “A lot of clients are way too terrified (of both the logistics and legalities) to actually try and bring one of these ideas to life. So you have to give them kudos for being brave enough to do it – if they do it well, that is.”

Ford stands out as a shining example of doing it well, and was successful in producing viral content under the banner of a mega-corporation, something often sought after but rarely executed.

Ford is hardly the first to dive into this world of prankvertising. More frequent in Europe, Gawker and Ad Rants acknowledge that the tactic landed on this side of the pond last October.

In the time since, a number of brands have been quick to try to capitalize on the “scares = sales” formula

In the spirit of Halloween today, here’s a quick look at some of the best executed on this side of the pond.

Sony’s “Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise”

Getting things started comes this great clip, recognized as the first prankvertisement to hit North American soil. The spot, done by Sony, was meant to raise awareness for the 2013 remake of Carrie.


Pepsi’s “Test Drive” #1 & 2

Next up, Pepsi teamed up with NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon to help promote Pepsi Max’s “A Zero Calorie Cola in Disguise” campaign. Gordon was disguised with makeup and stopped by a car dealership to pick on a salesman. After being “talked into” a test drive of the Camaro, Gordon appears to struggle with the power of the car. That is, until he really opens up and takes Salesman Steve for a ride he’ll never forget.

For Pepsi, this one ended up being a two-for-one. After seeing the first video, Travis Okulski, a writer with Jalopnik, called out the video for being a fake. In response, Pepsi and Gordon teamed up for round two:


Thinkmodo’s “Devil Baby Attack”

Horror movies provide the most obvious opportunities for prankvertising, but if the execution is weak, the movie’s reputation could falter before even hitting the theatres. This prank, taking place on the streets of New York City, has racked up close to 50 million views since it was released in January, meaning it may have even outperformed the film itself – have you ever heard of it?


Chobani’s “Hungry Bear Loose in NYC”

Proving it doesn’t always have to be grounded in a horror story comes this cool spot from Chobani (an organic Greek yogurt company in the U.S.) The company launched an ad that features a hungry bear, frustrated that he couldn’t find any food made with only natural ingredients in some old-fashioned mountain town. This prank was a brilliant follow-up, bringing the bear into the Big Apple to wreak havoc on hot dog carts and the like.


Wall’s Ice Cream’s “Goodbye Serious Cops”

Proving prankvertising doesn’t always have to be scary, as demonstrated by Wall’s (Good Humour here in North America) in this video. They teamed up with a few officers from the Pulmas County Sheriff’s Department in California to pull motorists over and hand over ice cream rather than fines.

The Future of Prankvertising?

With the trend, debates rage on.

2013 has been dubbed the “Year of Prankvertising” by Creative Guerilla Marketing, while some have said 2014 is the year it jumps the shark. Popular marketing blogger copyranter calls it the worst thing to happen to advertising since the starburst. Of course, prank videos have started to overrun YouTube, and have become the source of some serious contention.

“I liken it to a meme – a passing trend that’s hot right now but probably won’t have much staying power,” says Johnston. “Remember the Harlem Shake? Every brand under the sun hopped on that bandwagon, but it’s not the kind of thing you can do twice.”

One of the biggest problems? You never really know if these reactions are genuine.

As Johnston says, “It’s also worth nothing that most of these executions are completely staged. I hate to pull back the wizard’s curtain, but most the time you’re watching a heavily edited stunt starring very convincing actors and the odd passerby reaction.”

And on that note, let’s finish off with this:

Bonus Satire Version: John St.’s “ExFEARiential”


Is this list missing your favourite example of prankvertising? What do you think about this trend? Leave your thoughts on the comment section below!

Featured Photo Credit: Daniel Hollister – “Zombie!”

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