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More than 38 million people watched the Pepsi MAX prank on YouTube that had NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon surprise a car salesman by taking him on a hair-raising test drive.

Social media users love nothing so much as a joke at someone else's expense.

At least, that seems to be the belief of some of the marketers who have embraced prank advertising in a bid for more views and shares of their online videos.

Nivea Germany grabbed 7.2 million viewers on YouTube with a prank that convinced airport passengers that they were wanted by police to advertise its stress-protection deodorant. More than 38 million people watched the Pepsi MAX prank on YouTube that had NASCAR racer Jeff Gordon surprise a car salesman by taking him on a hair-raising test drive. And LG Corp. in Britain got in on the mean-spirited fun by placing its high-definition screens in the floor of an elevator to scare people into believing the floor was giving way. That won the company 20 million views.

Now LG is at it again. A campaign out of Chile sets job interviewees up in front of what appears to be a cataclysmic, extinction-level event. The video shows people sitting down for an interview, with a "window" behind the interviewer (actually made of TV screens) showing a massive meteor crashing to earth, all to promote its HD televisions.

With consumers' attentions scattered across more types of media than ever before, marketers are working hard to make their advertising look like entertainment – especially online. People seeking out a pleasant distraction are not looking for an advertising message. Anything that can get consumers to pay attention and, moreover, to feel that the disruption of their time is not entirely negative is a boon to marketers. The online world also presents the potential that if people like the content of an ad enough, they will actually do advertisers' work for them by passing it along to their friends. Those friends are then much more likely to pay attention as well.

In LG's case, the bid for attention is working. The meteor video garnered 20,000 views in the first six hours; more than four million in the first 36 hours, and is now nearing 10 million. But given how frightened the subjects of this prank appear to be, it also raises questions about whether the sense of humour in these Candid Camera-style ads is too exploitative to reflect well on the brand.

A representative from LG in Chile would not confirm whether the people in the video are actors. "For us, this is not the point of these types of videos," the representative said in an e-mail. "We do want to state however that nobody was placed into any dangerous or stressful situation during the production of the video."

Since a catastrophic meteor strike could not be characterized as anything other than a "stressful situation," this might suggest that the video is not entirely candid. "As marketers we want to deliver a message, but also make it entertaining," LG's e-mail said.

However, the pressure to make ads entertaining can raise questions about whether some go too far.

This year, Nivea Germany released a video promoting its "Stress Protect" deodorant that showed people in an airport lounge who see themselves in fake news reports about a "dangerous and unpredictable" suspect on the loose. Then, security guards approach – and give the poor souls some stress deodorant.

The brand received some negative media attention for the video. Some commentators online criticized the company for harassing unsuspecting people.

"As expected the feedback was very polarizing. But we were able to show in our making-of video that the 'victims' were really happy of being part of the prank, and that – after a short moment of stress – all of them consented to their images being published," Daniela Zastrow, a spokeswoman for Nivea parent company Beiersdorf AG in Hamburg, said in an e-mail.

Sometimes, the shock value is a last resort. In June, Leo Burnett London launched a campaign to speak to men aged 17 to 29 – the demographic most involved in drunk driving accidents. This demographic is also reluctant "to listen to advice or accept authority," agency spokeswoman Janice Capewell said.

In Leo Burnett's campaign for the London, U.K. Department of Transport, the agency shocked men in a bar with a stunt in which a bloody mannequin head appeared to smash through a mirror in the establishment's restroom, delivering a vivid message about the consequences of drinking and driving. It scored more than one million views in the first day it was posted online, and was shared on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter more than 20,000 times, leading to free press coverage. On YouTube it has now been seen more than 8.5 million times.

"The decision to use a prank type film was quite simple. Prank films are amongst the most shared on YouTube," Ms. Capewell said. "This was the perfect medium to get them to look at what actually is a film to encourage them to change their behaviour – in a particularly shocking and thought-provoking way."

Pranks can be a solution for a small ad budget, not just because a digital video campaign can be relatively cheap compared with TV. A campaign in New Zealand won a number of awards this year for its clever promotion of the show Secret Diary of a Call Girl. The agency staged suggestive scenes with an actor playing a call girl, in a house opposite a radio station, hoping the shock jocks inside would notice. They fell for it, the story spread, and the show got plenty of free radio advertising when the trick was revealed.

"Even my mom, three hours away, she heard about it on her radio station," said Kelly Lovelock, a senior creative at DraftFCB Auckland, who worked on the campaign.

Advertisers have the most success with prank videos when they strike the right tone. Last year, PepsiCo Inc. released a video featuring NBA player Kyrie Irving disguised as elderly character "Uncle Drew." He went to a neighbourhood basketball court, and wowed the people gathered there with his moves. More than 26 million people have seen it.

"You can really entertain consumers and deliver the brand message in a much more palatable way," said Lou Arbetter, Pepsi Max's senior director of marketing in the U.S. "Advertising and marketing is like medicine you're forced to take in between watching what you really want to watch. This puts the sugar on top and makes it entertaining."

The brand followed up that success in March with the Jeff Gordon test drive video, which has been reported to be a fake – Mr. Arbetter acknowledged a stunt driver was used to avoid accidents with an important star, but would not address the degree to which the rest was staged.

The Canadian division of Ubisoft Entertainment made consumers part of the staging for its prank video. Ahead of the launch of its new video game Watch Dogs this fall, the Montreal-based company created a smartphone app game to build anticipation. One of the tasks in the mobile game was to hack an ATM rigged by Ubisoft in a mall in Mississauga. When the players succeeded, the machine spit out $3,000 in five-dollar bills to unsuspecting mall visitors. Ubisoft and its ad agency Publicis Canada filmed the action and shared the video on social media.

The target for the campaign was 100,000 app downloads by November, when the bigger game is released. It is already at 130,000.

It was the perfect way to reach the game's young demographic, who are skeptical about marketing messages, said Lucile Bousquet, senior director of marketing at Ubisoft. "They're very demanding. They see a lot of things – we need to be very creative and surprise them all the time."

For that reason, she believes prank ads will continue to grow.