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.


A Thumbs Up For “Old” Ideas

In any creative business, there’s a funny tendency for people to become attached to favorite concepts and tactics…especially those oh-so-inspired program ideas that no client ever actually bought. Then there’s the reverse of that, which is the “been there, done that” stigma that kills ideas thought to be too obvious, or “not differentiated.” I’ve been there, too.

Which is why I was interested to read AdAge‘s slightly snarky piece titled “PR Gimmick Is All Thumbs But A Big Win.” It’s about the “surprising” success of LG Electronics’ national competition to find the fastest text messager. It’s apparently become a “major branded entertainment property” attracting 250,000 entrants and co-sponsors MTV, the NY Mets, and CitiField. (Most reader comments dealt with the use of the word “gimmick.” True, calling it that marginalizes PR by limiting it to events and stunts. But, let’s not get too bothered by a headline.)

What’s more interesting is that it’s about a third-year execution of an idea that could be described as….tired?  dated? me-too? Yes, all of those.  There’s probably not a PR person alive who hasn’t proposed a text messaging contest, given relevant clients. I seem to recall writing it into a few proposals, and stopping the idea’s gestation in utero several times because – well, been there, done that.

But, have I been there?  Not really. My point is that the campaign’s success is a big win for LG and a useful reminder for the rest of us of a few principles of PR programming.

First, the best programs – and the best stunts – rest on simple ideas, where the link between brand and creative tactic is intuitive.  Second, execution is critical – from the tiniest event details to the electrics we call packaging. That in itself can be a differentiator. We all know this, of course.

Finally, longevity can breed credibility. Okay, the LG program was first launched in 2007, and three years may not seem like such a long time. But, by today’s standards, it is. For whatever reasons, the brand stuck with the idea, a modestly success “gimmick” at first, enhancing the execution and building ownership.

I don’t know much about this particular campaign, and I’m as big an advocate of new thinking as anyone. We should always push ourselves to break the mold. But, in our rush to show  extraordinary creative ability, it’s worth remembering that extraordinary planning, execution, packaging, and commitment also count. On the client side, far too many brands, under pressure to deliver quarterly ROI in an ugly environment, will dismiss an idea, a strategy, a staff, and an agency, in search of the next new thing when a concept doesn’t measure up. And, too many agency professionals will reject a “done” idea, without stopping to think who has actually “done” it, and whether it can be done better.