Prankvertising, a new strategy for Viral Marketing in movie industry –Thinkmodo as a case study

29th May

Written by Siriorn Sutheerawong

Prankvertising, a new strategy for Viral Marketing in movie industry –Thinkmodo as a case study  


What would you do if you were confronted by a crime scene of two men struggling on the floor which one man puts a cord around the other's neck and pulls it tight. You might help, call the police, call your friends, post the status on Facebook, or even share the video on Youtube. Unknowingly, you were pranked by a viral marketing agency working for giant Hollywood movie companies such as 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures Entertainment. This prank video was published and shared with millions views within a few days and it was a part of Thinkmodo’s viral marketing strategy in promoting the upcoming movie, ‘Dead Man Down’ (Gianatasio, 2013).

With the emergence of social media, companies are going beyond simply advertising the products in traditional way. Rather, they are looking for new tools to attract and interact with customers. During the past years, we cannot underestimate the power of word-of-mouth communication and a buzz, which social media allows consumers to share and spread the word from a one-to-one basis to a one-to-hundreds, or even one-to-thousands (Papasolomou and Melanthiou, 2013). Viral marketing, or electronic word-of-mouth advertising, benefits from the power of social media (Phelps, et al., 2004). Many companies in various industries are thriving to come up with viral marketing campaign to get consumers’ attention and also boost their sales including Dove, Pepsi, Evian, Kmart, and Budweiser (Shields, 2013). This trend has also been expanded into movie industry, which the traditional advertisements such as billboards, TV advertising and movie trailers on the Internet are considered to be unwell paid off and slowly reaches the target market (Armelli and Villanueva, 2011). Moving into the new era, ‘prankvertising’ is widely used as a part of viral marketing strategy to promote a new movie (Gianatasio, 2013). This paper attempts to illustrate how and why viral marketing in the sense of prankvertising works in movie industry. A case study of Thinkmodo will be brought up to present both success and challenge, which the conclusion will be drawn at last with the suggested further study.

 Viral Marketing and Prankvertising

The term viral marketing refers to the rapid spread of a message for a new product or service. Viral marketing could be by word-of-mouth; however, it is commonly on the Internet as it allows the messages to be spread easily and quickly to reach millions of people. (Korgaonkar and Petrescu, 2011). Viral marketing enables companies to advertise their products and services with very low costs but still reach the same levels of awareness with TV advertising. In order to create a successful viral marketing, three conditions need to be fulfilled; giving the right message to the right people in the right circumstance (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011).

Right people: It is the first task that a marketer should seriously consider, which is identifying the target group to help spread the message. There are 3 individual-level user motivations: socializing, creativity, and escape. In order to create the phenomenon of viral marketing in sharing, a marketer needs to ensure that the message will be shared by individuals who have socializing motivations. This refers to a group of people who is primarily concerned with establishing and maintaining personal relationships with other members in the network (Eisenbeiss, et al., 2012). They, thus, tend to have access to a large amount of marketplace information, which will later be spread to a huge number of social connections (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011).

Right message: With the information overflow in the Internet, it is hard to gain people’s attention. Only the messages which are new, interesting, and exciting will have potential to create a viral marketing epidemic. These kinds of messages can be done through true stories, real reactions of people, rumors, humorous or hilarious messages, and even sexual contents. The right viral message should also trigger an emotional feeling with the relevant target group (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011).

Right circumstance: Many companies fail to promote viral marketing when they spread the message too broadly. It is important to choose a right platform that is specific enough to focus on the target group (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011). For example, Youtube, which is a sharing platform for user-generated videos, provides the functions of rating, views and subscription. These help marketers target brand-related user-generated videos which likely to go viral as soon as possible (Hoffman and Novak, 2012).

Prankvertising can fulfill viral marketing in the part of right message, which people are more engaging in the content that is highly shareable. Prankvertising is a marketing tactic that includes unsuspecting consumers, mostly in public places, in pranks set up by companies. The whole situation is filmed and distributed all over the Internet via blogs and social media (Roth, 2013). It shows the real reactions of people and creates humorous messages to the audience. As the nature of social media is sensitive to new and exciting content, it is more likely that this kind of message is highly viewed and shared. Although prankvertising existed long before the online marketing era, its popularity has increased rapidly after people realized how powerful it is to generate a viral or word-of-mouth buzz in online world (McMullen, 2013). However, every coin has two sides. Prankvertising sometimes involves the risk of lawsuit and injury. For example, people who are pranked can be shocked or have a heart attack (Gianatasio, 2013). Humor can turn into a bad joke.

Prankvertising in Movie Industry - Thinkmodo as a case study

Movie industry is one of the best illustrations of how viral marketing affects sales that it has a positive effect on box-office revenue. In the Honeycomb of 7 functional building blocks of social media, the dimension of ‘sharing’ reflects the extent to which people exchange, distribute, and receive content. (Kietzmann, et al., 2011). In order to help create a successful viral marketing, it should be commonly shared by the use of personal recommendation. Creditability is almost important in its power to influence and persuade. This means an anonymous advertising message does not have the same credibility as a recommendation from someone you know and trust. In addition, more intangible products, whose quality cannot be evaluated before purchase, are more likely to generate word-of-mouth and go viral easily (Armelli and Villanueva, 2011). This is why viral marketing is effectively used with the product nature such as movies. In movie industry, viral marketing is presented in many forms such as online reviews, blogs and movie trailers (Duan, Gu and Whinston, 2008). Recently, prankvertising strategy has been introduced to marketers in movie industry. It is treated as a new word in viral marketing semantics (Roth, 2013).

Thinkmodo is a New York-based marketing consulting company who specializes in creating effective viral video campaigns on the internet for a number of movies such as Carrie, Limitless, Chucky, Chronicle, Dead Man Down, The Last Exorcism Part II and Devil’s Due. Thinkmodo’s unique strategy is to generate huge online engagement and valuable earned media coverage worldwide (Thinkmodo, n.d.). Recently, the company decided to go a little further to implement prankvertising in its viral marketing campaign. Taking place in a New York coffee shop, Thinkmodo’s first prankvertising was created to promote a movie, Carrie that involves a girl who has strong telekinetic abilities. In the prank, a girl freaked out after a man dropped coffee on her laptop. Instead of reacting to him like a normal person, she did a Carrie-like telekinetic action, sending the poor guy flying up and hitting the wall. The girl screamed at last and the books flew off from the shelves. The situation was all set up with a fake wall, a stuntman, remote-controlled tables and fallen chairs (Horgan, 2013). Within a day, the video has almost four million views on YouTube (Macaulay, 2013). 

Figure 1. Thinkmodo’s prankvertising - Carrie movie promotion (Aceshowbiz, 2013)

Figure 1. Thinkmodo’s prankvertising - Carrie movie promotion (Aceshowbiz, 2013)

This Carrie prankvertising triggers a new type of viral marketing in movie industry, as Horgan (2013) stated that

            “The word ‘viral’ gets bandied a lot, but this video is one sure-fire way to know you are in the middle of something genuine in that regard.”

            The key success of Carrie prankvertising is that the video shows the real reactions of customers in the coffee shop, which at the same time creates a sense of humor of people who were pranked to the audience. The video, thus, contains the ‘right message’ to help accelerate a successful viral marketing (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011). Unlike other movie trailers, this Carrie movie promotion only reveals itself as an advertisement at the end of the video, with a presentation of a short movie scene. This is considered as voluntary and consensual, whereas normal advertising with too much promotion can sometimes be annoying and intrusive. With the power of viral marketing and sharing in social media, it automatically creates “Pull Effect” that people tend to search for the video to see it (Armelli and Villanueva, 2011).

            While Thinkmodo’s videos have gone viral around the world, they also need to be cautious about lawsuit and injury. Prankvertising situations that trade on fear, death and danger are risky to involve in the issues of personal privacy and social acceptability. Using nonprofessionals involves real risk, because people’s reactions are unpredictable. 

Figure 2. Thinkmodo’s prankvertising - Dead Man Down movie promotion (geekologie, 2013)

Figure 2. Thinkmodo’s prankvertising - Dead Man Down movie promotion (geekologie, 2013)


For example, in the fake murder-in-progress prankvertising for Dead Man Down as mentioned earlier, it has been criticized about the possibility that people would use a weapon or someone can suffer from a heart attack. According to Percelay, a Thinkmodo co-founder, he explained the situation that Thinkmodo was aware of the potential risk from their prankvertising production. Thus, they did a group study for people that tend to be in the scene along with a team standing by to intercede and to reveal that it was not a real fight (Gianatasio, 2013).


With the help of internet and social media, viral marketing or electronic word-of-mouth has been widely used amongst many industries to create a buzz with a low cost, including a movie industry. With the power of personal sharing, it enhances creditability of the viral buzz compared to corporate advertisement. As movies are intangible products, whose quality cannot be evaluated before purchase, they are more likely to generate word-of-mouth and go viral easily. In order to build a successful viral marketing, three conditions should be applied which includes right people, right message and right circumstance. Recently, prankvertising has been introduced into movie industry. It is successful because prankvertising contains the right message of people’s real reactions and a sense of humor to the audience, which is considered unique and exciting. The success of prankvertising was illustrated by Carrie video created by Thinkmodo marketing consulting company, which went viral and triggered a new way of marketing in movie industry. Another important thing behind the success is that the video is not too intrusive but voluntary and consensual. However, the challenge for prankvertising involves the risk of lawsuit and injury, which was exemplified by the criticism to Dead Man Down prankvertising. The company needs to be aware of and be prepared for any unpredictable situations. Prankvertising can be a risky business. However, high risk always comes with high return.

Further study

Although viral marketing proves to be successful in reaching people with a low budget, the results that link to ROI are much more difficult to predict or measure. Some companies believe that even though the investment to establish a viral marketing in social networks is relatively small, the cost of generating content is high, as it demands creativity, time and qualified talent. By comparing to the vague result of viral marketing, they thus decide to remain with the traditional way (Armelli and Villanueva, 2011). To clarify this, it might be interesting to conduct an in depth study in financial areas comparing viral marketing and traditional marketing, which the result can reflect whether viral marketing really outperforms and can completely substitute the traditional marketing.


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