Is the newest stunt no stunt at all?

Creative consultant Karen Howe on why it might be time to retire stunt-vertising.


By Karen Howe

I’m getting tired. More specifically, I’m getting tired of stunts.

The playing of pranks and hiding of cameras has enjoyed a meteoric surge in popularity in the last few years. Stunts are now the construct du jour for much creative.

Yet the concept isn’t all that new. It’s been around since the TV series Candid Camera debuted in the late ’40s. Real people were unknowingly the victims of various pranks, and their candid reactions were caught on hidden cameras. It was a hit. The series ran till the mid-’70s, and it spawned many other shows. When reality TV burst onto the scene, critical mass was achieved. Real people getting caught on camera doing damned near anything took on its own life. It became the basis of a lot of brand work we see today.

WestJet, for example, hit a homerun with its real-time giving in 2013. Passengers unknowingly had their Christmas wishes fulfilled by the time their flight landed. It hit all the right notes – it captured the magic of Christmas, pulled heartstrings and added a twist of clever for good measure. It was real. It surprised us.

Meanwhile, Heineken’s “The Candidate” gave us a peek behind the curtain at the narrowing down of 1,734 real job candidates to one winner. They also pulled a stunt in Italy where a thousand hapless men were coerced into attending a faux poetry reading set to classical music on the same night as an UEFA Champions League match. The reveal? Their reward for so noble a sacrifice was getting to watch the game on the ultimate big screen ­– complete with Heineken, of course.

Then there’s Coke’s “No Labels” stunt around Ramadan, which was a provocative look at how we judge each other based on appearances.

And who could forget the NYC pop-up used gun store for States United to Prevent Gun Violence? Each gun sold to had its history attached ­– including who had been killed by it. The sales clerk was a plant, but the shoppers were not. Their shock was genuine. It worked well because you can’t fake real.

As Michael Grimes of Heineken Canada told me, “Staging helps with control, budget and to ensure that your output aligns with the brief. But there needs to be a balance so that it’s not at the expense of authenticity.”

Unfortunately, many stunts now strain to find the right calibration between staged and not staged. It’s obvious when they are packed with actors or half the agency’s staff. So we increasingly see the faked responses of genetically perfect “real people.”

A great stunt, like “The Amazing Mindreader,” required the lining up of several collective stars: the right concept, at the right time with the right people reacting in the right way. But that also appears to be getting tougher. Stunt strain is afoot.

The success of stunts has become its downfall. It’s harder than ever to surprise our audience with YouTube views climbing on every stunt. The WestJet one alone has over 42 million views.

So our audience is now in on the joke. Our “unwitting victims” have their detectors finely tuned and know their job is to play along for their moment of cyber fame.

A recent stunt for Coke, for example, has a man bursting into boisterous laughter on a commuter-packed train. Everyone starts laughing, Coke is handed out. Brand connects. Or does it? You can tell from the cuts that everyone on that train had the lens of an entire camera crew peering up their nostrils. And just like reality TV, the “commuters” knew they had a part to play.

Situations have become increasingly contrived. And as such, you can smell the whiff of stunt extinction.

Yes, stunts have had a good run. They cleaned up on the award show circuit. But in our hunger for awards, the work that’s achieving recognition – the work most admired – is too often mimicked, and so we have fallen into self-parody. We’ve become the rat eating its own tail.

It’s our métier to break new ground and forge new frontiers, rather than tilling the same turf over and over.

Perhaps this year it’s time for a new idea. A new form. Who knows? Maybe in 2016 the newest stunt will be no stunt at all.

karen-100843-4C-Cropped-300 (1)Karen Howe is a creative consultant for clients across Canada. She also serves on the Cannes Lions Advisory Board as a member and speaker.