Booming Business of Extreme Pranks: When Cashing in on Viral Videos Crosses the Line

PHOTO: A fresh clip from the Brazilian hidden camera television show "The Silvio Santos Program" has gone viral.
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Capturing viral video magic has proven to have big payoffs, but competition for millions of clicks, widespread media attention and, in some cases, money, has led some pranksters to increasingly push the limits to get noticed.

The Brazilian TV show, "The Silvio Santos Program," recently caught flack for two hidden-camera elevator pranks that went viral. In one prank, unsuspecting victims thought they were in an elevator ride from hell when a "corpse" popped out of a coffin. The TV show then aired and made fun of their reactions, but the duped victims were so terrified that critics questioned whether the show could be sued.

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But this is the type of exposure money can't buy and advertisers have taken note. When electronics company LG wanted to demonstrate how crystal clear their new IPS monitors were, they outfitted an elevator floor with the screens, then tricked people into thinking the floor was dropping out and they were about to plummet to their deaths. LG used people's reactions in an ad that has received over 17 million views on YouTube.

"It's an arms race," said media strategist Ryan Holiday. "What fooled people yesterday is not what's going to fool them today. Things have to get more extreme, they have to get crazier and crazier."

Holiday, who is the head of marketing for American Apparel, an online strategist for Tucker Max and a self-anointed "media manipulator," first earned a name for himself pranking several media outlets by posing as a fake expert for stories. He claimed to be a suffering insomniac for an ABC News story, an outraged customer who was sneezed on at a Burger King for MSNBC and a vinyl record collector for a New York Times piece, just to name a few.

"At most, I would Google the thing before I talked to the reporter," he said.

Holiday claims he was exposing flaws in journalistic vetting, but his pranks also led to a book deal. Now he helps his clients plan viral ad campaigns. Faced with a limited budget, Holiday created a sneaky way to get young men to see the Tucker Max movie, "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," by organizing a campaign against the film's womanizing plot and baited people to protest it.

"We realized, 'what's the best way to get these kids to see this movie,' is to tell them not to see the movie," he said.

In the end, the controversy gave the film tons of free publicity. Despite the risks, Holiday thinks the potential fame exposure pranks can bring is too great for people and companies alike to stop pushing the limits.

"You have to ask yourself, at what cost are you willing to get this reaction?" Holiday said. "What is the reaction really worth?"

For someone like Jose Barrientos, a big reaction to a prank is worth a lot. Barrientos, a 26-year-old standup comedian and Los Angeles City College student, was looking for his big break. At the start of this past semester, on a whim, he decided to prank his public-speaking class by adopting the persona and accent of a Mexican immigrant.

"At first I thought people were going to laugh, and they didn't, they just kind of took it at face value," Barrientos said.

Realizing he was on to something, Barrientos kept it up for four straight months. He filmed himself giving presentations in full character and even continued playing the part outside of class.

"I hung out with these people," he said. "We went and got food together, I went to their birthday parties. I never broke character."

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