Has PRankvertising Gone Too Far?

To think, just a few months ago, I wondered if Chipotle’s faux Twitter hack was a mistake, because it duped followers in order to cook up some quick PR.  But the stunt was nothing compared to the outrageous shock-ad campaigns from major international brands. Prankvertising – or what I think of as PRankvertising, because its goal is to generate free views of the reactions of the victims, is the newest way to grab attention in an always-on, media-saturated world. It’s like reality TV; we know it’s not completely real, but there’s a voyeuristic element that’s irresistible.

A recent example is LG. To promote its new HDTV, it created a scenario where candidates in the midst of a job interview were apparently fooled into thinking they were watching a sudden meteor strike through a building window. Of course, what they were actually watching was a disaster video on a large-screen LG TV.  But the terrified reactions are what make it so watchable; the job-seekers cower, scream, and flee in panic. Though the video was produced for the LG market in Chile, its reach is much broader. It’s generated 11 million views, which is pretty shocking in itself.

So, is LG risking its brand equity with the stunt? I was all set to hate the videos for scaring the wits out of innocent unemployed people, but it’s hard not to admire the strategy….and the ROI. To add to the intrigue, there’s ample evidence that the prank itself was faked….the job candidates are reportedly actors, and when examined closely, the whole scenario seems staged. So the tagline, “Reality? Or UltraReality? takes on a double meaning. A kind of “Is it real, or is it Memorex?” for the digital age.

LG isn’t a latecomer to pranks. It’s produced similar ads before, including a memorable series simulating a shaky elevator ride with the tagline, “So real, it’s scary.”  At the very least, the elevator mishaps and meteor attack speak to product benefits. Unlike other campaigns, namely the Nivea airport “arrest” videos that are anything but arresting, it has a crystal-clear message. And if the participants are paid actors, no one gets hurt.

The troublesome aspect for me is each spot seems to raise the bar. We surely haven’t seen the last of these brand-driven pranks. But the elevator videos were merely disturbing; the meteor prank shoots for apocalyptic. What’s next, an alien attack?

In fact, LG’s ultra-reality prank evokes one of the most famous publicity stunts of all time, – the Orson Welles radio broadcast about a fake Martian invasion. War of the Worlds was probably the original shock PR stunt and the grandaddy of PR-ankvertising. Maybe it’s not so new after all.


Oh, No! This Blog Was Hacked! (Chipotle’s PR Stunt Shows Poor Taste)

Okay, the title is a joke. But did Chipotle’s fake Twitter hack legitimize the faux attack as a down-and-dirty publicity stunt? Apparently the random tweets, which include such nonsensical posts as “do i have a tweet?” and “mittens13 password leave” were part of a treasure hunt promotion based on a series of puzzles.

The promotion seems similar to alternate reality games run by blockbuster movies. But it was the fake claim, and specifically the use of the loaded word “hack,” that spiced up the story and gained Chipotle 4,000 followers and 12,000 RTs in a single day. The whole episode played as a ploy to bump up the social following.

In a way, I see the humor in it. It seems that every boldfaced name who’s tweet-blurted something regrettable has initially claimed to be a victim of a hack, with Anthony Weiner being at the top of the list. It’s beyond cliche. And a Twitter breach isn’t exactly up there with the PRISM scandal. It’s designed to be public, so there’s no confidentiality violation.

Yet the fake hack makes light of something that can happen, and if it does, it can have a serious reputation impact. More importantly, there’s the issue of trust. Chipotle is a terrific brand with a great product and customer experience (I’m a regular customer and a big fan), and although the entire hack episode was lighthearted, it was a trick.

Finally, the fake tweets were flatter than a stale tortilla. If you’re going to fib to your customers and risk their trust, at least make it entertaining!

So, for most marketing and PR types, as well as any customers who were watching, the fake hack may have been well-intentioned, but it was hard to swallow. And I hope the mixed coverage can nip the trend in the bud, but that’s doubtful. After Burger King experienced a legitimate hack, both the MTV and BET networks decided to stage their own attacks to get in on the press coverage. Chipotle isn’t the first brand to fake a Twitter hack, and it won’t be the last.