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

Competition for big advertising bucks has driven pranksters to push the limit.

Jan. 11, 2013— -- 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.

Watch the full story on "20/20: Faking It" TONIGHT at 10 ET

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."

For his final presentation at the end of the semester, Barrientos ditched the fake persona he had been using since August and revealed his true self to the class. His classmates and professor were stunned.

"Well, it was scary," he said. "I think they thought it was a gimmick, that I just had learned how to do an American accent."

Barrientos said he kept it up because he wanted to see how far the prank could run, but he said it also exposed how easily people believe stereotypes. He hopes his prank will help change that.

"I think people hear the word 'Mexico' and they picture ponchos and sombreros and mustaches and margaritas," he said. "[Now] I think they are more apt to question themselves when they see or hear a stereotype."

After the big reveal, Barrientos posted the videos that documented his speeches from the semester, as well as his classmates' reactions to his final speech, on YouTube. The last video alone has now gotten over two million viewers since it was posted in November.

The stunt nearly got Barrientos expelled and many of his friends were appalled. He said he approached some classmates afterwards to make amends. Nevertheless the fame from the prank has boosted the aspiring comedian's image -- something he wanted from the beginning.

"I don't think you can do anything great if you are doing what everybody else is doing," Barrientos said. "Eventually you have to do something kind of off the wall."

Watch the full story on "20/20: Faking It" TONIGHT at 10 ET