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persuasion notebook

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.

"Most ads are dramatic. We want them to be traumatic."

That's how Chris Hirsch, creative director at Toronto advertising agency John St., pans the trend of prank advertising – as marketers have increasingly relied on setting people up in unexpected situations to give their ads more impact.

The latest in a string of videos that the agency has made to poke fun at the advertising industry was unveiled at an industry event on Tuesday night.

John St., which was acquired by U.K.-based holding company WPP in the spring, has made an annual tradition of these spoofs. "Pink Ponies" was about the overdramatic case study videos agencies use in hopes of buttering up award show juries; "Catvertising" joked about becoming a niche shop devoted only to online cat videos; and last year's "Buyral" skewered the practice of buying clicks to turn an advertisement into a viral video.

This year's video mocks what is known as "experiential" advertising – stunts that sometimes include pranks such as LG's fake armageddon, a "Pub Loo Shocker" in the U.K., a coffee shop promotion for the movie "Carrie," and a crazy test drive in a video for Pepsi.

In its spoof, John St. takes it to the extreme, reinventing the category as "exfeariential." It was shown at the Strategy magazine "Agency of the Year" event on Tuesday. John St. also took home the award for creative agency of the year.

The fake campaigns include stealing women's babies – a direct parody of a German deodorant campaign – and a home invasion with a happy ending (a beer ad).

It's not alone in suggesting these campaigns sometimes go too far – Nivea Germany has admitted "the feedback was very polarizing" after it promoted its "Stress Protect" deodorant by making airport travellers believe they were wanted by police.

Serious concerns aside – and perhaps just as serious for ad agency copywriters and their clients – the spoof shows just how the overused tactic has come to seem tired, hackneyed, and not always in good taste.

Still, some advertisers have seen it work – especially when the prank is more good-natured. Pepsi Max has also sent the NBA player Kyrie Irving to local basketball courts to join a pickup game dressed as an old man. The videos have been so popular, Pepsi released the third chapter just last week.