Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to Prankvertising

A couple walk into a lift, only to be confronted with one man strangling another – a horrific experience for anyone, but a striking reality in the current world of film prankvertising. This example is the advertising campaign for Dead Man Down (2013), just one of the many films that uses the video of a staged prank and the reactions of supposedly innocent victims to promote its release. Relying on shock value to go viral and convey its advertising message across the web, the film prankvert is the newest form of viral film marketing. Since late 2013, its popularity has risen to new heights, though box-office figures of films marketed through prankvertising, and ethical concerns around the treatment of unknowing participants, signal that the phenomenon may be short-lived.

Viral advertising for cinema is not new, the best-known example being the campaign released to promote The Blair Witch Project (1999). With a dedicated website, a series of low-budget trailers and mysterious messages posted on forums, this campaign’s claim to detail a true story caused it to be heralded as “the most inventive, terrifying and successful campaign in film history” (Davidson). In such a strategy, the advertiser plays on the consumer’s willingness to believe that what they see and hear is true. This instils a sense of authenticity as information about the film is spread across the web by virtual word of mouth. Indeed, by the time a similar video-based campaign was used to great success for Cloverfield (2008) viral film advertising had become central to film marketing in general. With a “30-second commercial during peak television times” costing up to $600,000 and trailers costing “upwards of $250,000” (Drake 71), the free advertising that a viral campaign gains from millions of YouTube hits and coverage of the phenomenon by mainstream media outlets such as Good Morning America (as with Carrie (2012)) and NBC (Devil’s Due (2013)), ensure that this method is one of the most cost-effective way of reaching consumers.

As campaigns such as those for The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield start to gain notoriety, however, and viewers recognise similar videos as advertisements, the effectiveness of such viral campaigns wanes. The audience know that they are being ‘pranked’, and the marketing strategies prove ineffective. At this junction, viral film advertising mutates in order to preserve its influence over the market. As Mael Roth suggests, “with businesses acknowledging the power of viral campaigns, they’re […] engaging in creating content which is highly ‘shareable’”, thus paving the way for the prankvert, “a guerrilla marketing tactic which consists in including unsuspecting consumers […] in pranks set up by brands”. From 2010, various film-related ‘prank’ videos began to appear online. Mirroring the ever-popular amateur videos created purely for fun, these elaborate, often expensive, practical jokes entertain the viewer and encourage likes and shares on social networking sites. While the previous generation of viral advertisements relied on tricking the viewer, this new approach is founded upon revealing the prank from the off. The consumer of the prankvert is placed in a position of authority – not only does she experience the trick, but she also plays a part in its set up and is privy to the reveal. In this way, the audience’s role is switched from pranked to prankster. Rather than attempting to recreate a certain reality, as hoax videos do, this approach flaunts its artificiality – though only to a certain extent. Considering its fundamentally commercial nature, the film prankvert raises multiple questions in relation to its authenticity: is this, in fact, an elaborate double-bluff, employing actors not only to perform the stunts but also to react to them? James Percelay of Thinkmodo, the company behind both the Carrie and Devil’s Due pranks, assures Arwa Mahdawi of The Guardian that “the people featured witnessing [Carrie’s] telekinetic rage in the coffee shop were real people, and had no clue what was going to happen”. However, Percelay has a vested interest in the reactions being perceived as genuine. If they are in fact all staged, the audience position remains that of the pranked, though unbeknownst to them.

Despite these concerns, film prankvertising has only gained in popularity since 2010. One of the first successful campaigns was that of The Last Exorcism (2010), involving a demonic teenage girl pranking users of the webcam-based chat website Chatroulette. To date, the video has 8.6m views on YouTube and continues to be referenced in lists of successful prankverts. Its sequel, the beauty parlour prank that reveals another demonic girl in an unsuspecting customer’s mirror, promotes The Last Exorcism 2 (2012).  This shows a continued interest in this form of advertising both on the part of the advertiser, in their willingness to invest, and on the part of the consumer, in the continuous likes and shares. It is in past months however, that interest in this form of viral marketing has significantly increased. Most recently, the prankvert for the found footage horror Devil’s Due (2014) has garnered over 42m views. Since 2010, view counts on successful prankverts have more than quintupled and awareness of the trend has skyrocketed. The trend is not even confined to the North American and European markets, as the Brazilian bus stop prank for Curse of Chucky (2013) has amassed over 13m views.  Despite being in existence for several years, the film prankvert has come into its own, becoming the current preferred form of viral advertising and causing TIME Magazine to dub it “the most recent fad that marketers have ridden to viral success” (Luckerson).

In terms of its ‘virality’, the film prankvert is now one of the most potent forms of online advertising. The video for Carrie (2012), entitled ‘Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise’, consists of a woman with supposed telekinetic powers wreaking havoc in a New York cafe – and is the most successful film prankvert to date with over 54m YouTube hits. Following its release, the video caused a considerable amount of buzz on and offline, with articles in The Huffington Post, LA Times and USA Today as well as numerous television spots. The prankvert’s success has been compounded by the release of “Youtubers React to Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise” by the popular YouTube channel ‘TheFineBros’. By appropriating the video in this way, viewers are placed in a particular position of knowledge and power. Their subversion of the video’s principle objective serves not only to underline the active nature of reception but to also further highlight the highly mutative and viral aspects of the prankvert.

Prankverts in film advertising are most commonly used for films with either an element of fantasy, as with Chronicle (2012), or horror, as with Curse of Chucky. The use of such ‘pranks’ ties closely in with the pleasure of fear, as experienced when watching innocent passers-by being chased by a ‘real-life’ Chucky, and the sense of escapism and amazement when seeing flying people soar through the skies over New York City. The viewer here has the privileged position of being both part of the joke and experiencing it for herself. This double attraction has qualities that can translate to horror viewing in particular. To watch horror is to, in part, want to be frightened – yet, it also consists of observing and finding pleasure in the fright of others. Daniel Shaw explains that “[w]e enjoy horror because it allows us to vicariously enjoy the feelings of power that result from a complex process of dual identification with both the monster […] and the human protagonists that attempt to combat it” (40). In such a way, the ‘monster’, or the prank in itself, and the victims both present points of identification for the viewer. The suspense of dramatic irony used commonly in slasher films can be found in the viewer’s knowledge of the artifice and impatience to see the event unfold. In this way, film prankvertising has found its partner in the horror and fantasy genres.

However, while publicity booms, box-office figures dwindle. The aforementioned Carrie had a reported budget of $30m and, despite the promising YouTube views, grossed just over $34m by the end of its run in cinemas. This caused Forbes to call it a “flop” on its opening weekend (Mendelson). Devil’s Due, with a $7m budget, did make a profit with $8.5m in its first few days of opening, but in light of its marketing campaign, these takings are underwhelming. Despite their high view count, the two most talked about film prankverts to date have failed to lure the crowds. Similar horror films such as The Purge (2013), which grossed over $34m on its opening weekend on a budget of just $3m, and The Conjuring (2013), which more than doubled its $20m budget with $41m in weekend takings, did not benefit from any such viral campaigns. In light of this, have the pranvertisers simply provided free entertainment for the masses? It can be argued that such films fare better in secondary markets such as DVD sales and pay per view, and that this kind of buzz will have a larger effect on further profits down the line.  Carrie’s US DVD release in January 2014 debuted high in the DVD sales charts, hinting that this may indeed be the case. While Carrie’s tagline confidently proclaims that “you will know her name”, it will take a little more time to know whether or not we will see her film.

Since late 2013, prankvertising has been on the mind of many a marketing blogger and journalist. Titles of articles written in late 2013, including ‘Is Prankvertising the New Trend in Advertising?’ (Fremstad) and ‘Prankvertising: a New Word in Marketing Semantics’ (Roth), bear witness to the intense interest in the technique. .However, there are indications that the prankvertising phenomenon will not last forever. More recent articles, including “2014: The Year Prankvertising Jumps the Shark” (Marshall) and “Prankvertising: How Far is too Far?” (Stuart) question the efficiency, authenticity and ethics of the prankvert and suggest the trend may have run its course. The question has been raised about the safety of such campaigns – how far will they go before causing a participant accidental bodily harm or mental anguish? How can the actions of a frightened person confronted with an extreme situation be predicted? According to Luckerson, Thinkmodo “screens its victims before filming them and prepares them to see something ‘cool,’ while trying not to ruin the surprise”. Even if the participants are not at immediate risk, however, we still must consider how ethical it is to use the fright of another person simply to push a film.

Despite the internet popularity and worldwide renown of the prankvert, the general advertising horizon is shifting, with Sarah Waters predicting a “more mature” turn in 2014 (Marshall). As more and more campaigns appear, prankverts will eventually lose their singularity and viewers will turn away. “After all”, says Mahdawi, “Carrie eventually gets her revenge on her tormentors. It’s very possible that consumers will too.” While scrutiny of the ethics of the prankvert is still in play, it seems more likely that time will be its downfall. “Short-form content” on sites such as Vine and Instagram is already slated to be the next big thing (Marshall) and the prankvert looks increasingly like old news.


Davidson, Neil. “The Blair Witch Project: The Best Viral Marketing Campaign of all Time.” MWPDigitalMedia, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.

Drake, Philip. “Distribution and Marketing in Contemporary Hollywood.” The Contemporary Hollywood Industry. Ed. Paul McDonald, Janet Wasko. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 63-82. Print

Fremstad, Adella. “Is Prankvertising the New Trend in Advertising?” 3MartiniLunches: A Dallas Advertising Blog, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Luckerson, Victor. “Selling Schadenfreude: Inside the World of ‘Prankvertising.” TIME, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Mahdawi, Arwa. “Prankvertising –A Marketing Heart-attacktic Too Far?” Guardian, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2013.

Marshall, Carla. “2014: The Year Prankvertising Jumps the Shark?” ReelSEO, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Mendelson, Scott. “Friday Box Office: ‘Carrie’, ‘Escape Plan’, ‘Fifth Estate’ Mostly Flop.” Forbes, 19 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Roth, Mael. “Prankvertising: a new word in marketing semantics.” Lovable Marketing, 10 Dec 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Shaw, Daniel. “Philosophies of Horror.” Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously. London: Wallflower, 2008. 35-43. Print.

Stuart, Lucy. “Prankvertising – How Far is Too Far?” Trackpal, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Written by Darcy Giles, 2014; Queen Mary, University of London.

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Copyright © 2014 Darcy Giles/Mapping Contemporary Cinema


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