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Devil baby is latest terrifying prank ad campaign

The devil baby is terrifying New Yorkers.

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Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

A devil baby is terrorizing pedestrians in New York City.

Don't worry, though, as with every other supposedly terrifying phenomenon visited upon innocent bystanders lately, it's just another prank dreamed up by marketers.

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In this case, it is a "guerrilla" advertising campaign for the horror film Devil's Due, a 20th Century Fox release out later this month. The campaign, designed for sharing via social media and posted on YouTube on Tuesday, features a mechanized baby doll in a stroller set up to terrify passers-by. The sound of a baby's crying encourages some to look closer at the unmanned stroller, at which point the doll – red-eyed, veiny and demonic – pops up screaming while hidden cameras capture people's frantic reactions.

This type of prank advertising is now old hat. It is a trend that has picked up speed in recent years as advertisers shoot for the next viral hit online. If a video is eye-catching enough that people share it, the thinking goes, then a company can get free publicity that reaches millions of people. By contrast, buying enough advertising space on television, in print, and in online ads to reach that many prospective customers would cost much more.

But it's a tactic that is also veering toward self-parody. It has become such a go-to strategy for attracting attention that some in the industry believe it's a worn-out trend.

In November, Toronto ad agency john st. created a video spoofing this type of advertising. The industry term "experiential" refers to campaigns that interact with consumers in non-traditional ways. The john st. video facetiously promoted a service producing "exfeariential" campaigns.

It poked fun at the kind of advertising that scares the wits out of those subjected to the prank. For example, last year Nivea Germany promoted its "Stress Protect" deodorant by tricking people in an airport into believing they were wanted by police.

In an e-mail responding to questions about the campaign last year, Daniela Zastrow, a spokeswoman for Nivea parent company Beiersdorf AG in Hamburg pointed out that before anyone was subjected to the airport prank, the company checked with their friends "to confirm that they were suitable candidates and didn't have a medical condition such as a weak heart."

The john st. video satirized that kind of campaign with a fake deodorant ad that stole women's babies from them – pointing to the questionable tactic of pranking unsuspecting people in service of a brand.

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But as the latest in a string of prank ads shows, some marketers are still making people's nightmares come true.

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