The time is ripe to consider trigger happy online TV

It’s been more than a decade since Trigger Happy TV hit our screens, but consumer appetite for watching pranksters pull stunts on the public has shown no sign of fading. Branded prank videos are fast becoming the new LOLcats of the internet, but while they’re certainly shareable there’s several pitfalls brands must overcome to avoid becoming victims of their own practical jokes.

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What do you tend to do when you’re washing your hands in a pub toilet? Apologies for the creepy question – there is a purpose to it. For three “unsuspecting” pub goers this week, their routine involved straightening their clothes, wringing out their hands, fiddling with their hair, oh, and almost suffering a cardiac arrest after a life-size bloody human mannequin was smashed through the (fake) mirror.

Their reactions were part of a new anti-drink driving campaign for The Department of Transport. Despite only being launched online yesterday (7 June) the online video has already garnered 11,000 Facebook shares, according to Unruly Media’s Viral Video Chart.

Such extreme – and potentially risky for insurance purposes – stunts are becoming ever more popular fodder for digital marketers looking to build their brands’ fame online.

Campaigns ranging from the slightly mean to the outrageous have been launched by the likes of cable network TNT (“Push to Add Drama”), Heineken (“The Candidate”) , Hollywood blockbuster Dead Man Down (the elevator murder experiment) and Carlsberg (“Putting friends to the test” in a shady poker den),  to name a few.

For marketers the word “viral” possesses several, contrasting meanings. On the one hand, such stunts have the ability to be contagious and spread throughout the web at speed. On the other hand, they have the potential to really damage your brand health.

Toyota and its ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi LA found itself at the wrong end of a legal wrangle with a US participant of one of its marketing stunts to the sum of $10m in 2008, for example. The woman claimed she was harassed by the guerrilla marketing campaign (“Your Other You”) after receiving disturbing emails from a fictitious alcoholic football hooligan stalker (one of which claimed he was on his way to her house and another detailed a fake hotel bill for a TV she had apparently smashed). The matter was settled “to the mutual satisfaction of the parties”, according to the ad agency.

One would assume most marketers would by now have the best interest of the participants at heart. Many also use actors to ward off any potential litigation, including – somewhat disappointingly – the anti-drink driving push and the TNT stunt.

But legal and insurance bills aren’t the only issues marketers must consider. While online stunts are ideal for generating social media buzz, presumably so people can laugh at their friends’ reactions, it’s questionable as to whether those shares translate into uplifts of any other brand metrics or sales. The TNT “Push to Add Drama” has driven 4.6 million shares since its launch last year, but did it translate to people pushing the buttons on their TV remotes? Were there enough references to what TNT does or stands for in order for people outside of its home markets to recognise the company is a cable network?

Shock campaigns certainly cause an instant physical or mental reaction, but unless they have a reason for existing, they soon become as tired looking as the millionth Rick Roll – and the YouTube commentators will be swift in letting brands know they think they are old hat.

Brands must ensure they have a pass to enter Candid Camera territory, especially if their campaigns are to border on the sadistic. If a campaign gets people talking about what your brand promises to deliver – be that friendship or awareness about the horrors of drink driving accidents – then it is worth the production budget. If the aim of the campaign is to make people jump away from their screens in the hope of a little bit of social media uplift and blog posts mentioning your brand was behind it, your stunt is likely to have as much impact as yet another “Guinness World Record attempt” or one of those incessant poorly conducted brand-commissioned PR surveys.

Just like most virals in the real world, consumers can become immune to shock online video stunts if they’re injected with ample amounts of the antidote. Practical joke campaigns are trending right now but before marketers jump in and create their own, they must consider – like all other forms of marketing – whether their stunt truly stands above the parapet creatively and the business purpose behind it if they are to transform their pranks into prize assets.  

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