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Pranking is the act of playing practical jokes or mischievous tricks on other people for amusement. Online, pranking is commonly associated with trolling and prank videos are disseminated on the video-sharing site YouTube.
In 1904, dye company employee Soren Sorensen Adams discovered one of the company’s products caused workers to sneeze, prompting him to make a sneezing powder which began selling in high demand. Adams subsequently launched a business selling a variety of practical joke products including the “joy buzzer,” a hand-held device that administers a sudden shock to the victim’s palm. One of the earliest documented April Fool’s Day pranks was orchestrated by the Capital-Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin in 1933, which ran a photograph on the front page showing the Wisconsin State Capitol building collapsing (shown below).
In 1953, American humorist Harry Allen Wolfgang Smith released his book The Complete Practical Joker, detailing how to execute a variety of pranks. On April 1st, 1957, the BBC featured a prank segment about a Swiss family harvesting a spaghetti tree (shown below).
In the late 1970s, prank phone calls recordings began spreading through cassette tapes. In 1989, the American comedy act The Jerky Boys formed, whose routine consisted of prank calls which were recorded and sold as tapes and compact discs (shown below).
The earliest known streaming prank call on the Internet was broadcast by the webmaster of the site Blackout’s Box in 1995. Several other prank calls were subsequently published on the site (shown below).
On July 23rd, 2006, YouTuber ryckmmat uploaded a video titled “Prank Calls,” featuring a man calling various businesses asking for absurd products and services (shown below, left). In the first seven years, the video gained over 11 million views and 33,000 comments. On May 11th, 2007, YouTuber Just For Laughs Gags uploaded a prank video featuring a man hiding in a public toilet (shown below, right), which accumulated upwards of 32.4 million views and 23,000 comments in five years.
On November 10th, 2009, the “PrankvsPrank” YouTube channel was created, with the first uploaded video showing a man scaring his girlfriend in bed with a mannequin head (shown below, left). In the next four years, the channel gained more than 455 million views and 3.1 million subscribers. On December 18th, 2010, the Break YouTube channel uploaded a montage of prank video clips (shown below, right), accumulating upwards of 8.8 million views and 8,000 comments.
On June 3rd, 2011, YouTuber Shideh Naderi uploaded a video featuring a shampoo shower prank (shown below, left), garnering over 18.5 million views and 17,700 comments. On March 26th, 2012, the pranking video channel LAHWF was launched by YouTuber Andrew Hales, with the first video featuring Hales awkwardly approaching women on a college campus (shown below). In roughly one year, the channel garnered upwards of 98 million video views and 806,000 subscribers.
In Viral Marketing
As the demand for viral videos continued to grow across the world, pranking soon became widely adopted by marketing and advertising agencies as well. In February 2008, Saatchi & Saatchi launched a promotional campaign for Toyota Matrix with an e-mail prank dubbed “Your Other You,” in which participants could sign up their friends to be the target of an elaborate hoax that ended with an advertisement for the car.
In August 2010, The YouTube channel for the 2010 horror film The Last Exorcism uploaded a scary prank reaction video in which several unsuspecting Chatroulette users are shown caught off guard by an attractive woman who transforms into a ghostly figure. In September 2011, The YouTube channel channel for the Danish brewery Carlsberg uploaded a video in which 148 actors dressed as outlaw bikers take over a movie theater.
In April 2012, TNT uploaded a video titled "" in which pedestrians unknowingly trigger a series of intense, action-filled events in the streets of Brissel, Belgium after pressing a mysterious red button. In October 2012, The YouTube channel for LG uploaded a video titled “So Real It’s Scary” in which the floor of an elevator is replaced with a 3D-mapped flatscreen TV to trick passengers into believing that the floorboard fell through the shaft.
Throughout 2013, a number of corporate-sponsored prank videos went viral on YouTube, including Adobe’s real-time photoshop session at a bus stop in London and Pepsi’s Jeff Gordon test driving prank among many others.
In October 2013, the YouTube channel for the upcoming horror film Carrie uploaded a video titled “Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise,” in which a professional stunt woman stages an eerie telekinetic meltdown at a New York City cafe using remote-controlled and spring-loaded mechanisms. Within 72 hours of upload, the video garnered more than 26.7 million views.
Fire in the Hole
Fire In The Hole is a series of drive-through prank videos wherein the driver approaches the service window, orders a soft drink and then yells “fire in the hole!” before tossing the drink back at the server and driving away.
In 2003, the Scary Maze Game was created by software engineer Jeremy Winterrowd, which would prank players with a closeup photograph of the actress Linda Blair in The Exorcist accompanied by a loud scream (shown below).
Wooden Spoon Prank
The Wooden Spoon Prank is a practical joke that is disguised as a turn-based endurance game in which two participants duel by striking each other’s head with a wooden spoon in their mouths, though in reality, the targeted victim is smacked in the head at full force by a third person secretly holding a wooden spoon.
Bros Icing Bros
Bros Icing Bros is a popular drinking game prank in real life that occurred first in colleges in the South before spreading online in mid-2010.
Justin Bieber to North Korea
Justin Bieber to North Korea (also known as “Project North Korea is Best Korea”) is an Internet prank orchestrated by users of the imageboard 4chan in early 2010, which aimed to rig an online poll to select North Korea as a destination in Justin Bieber’s “My World” tour.
Rapture Bombing is a flashmob prank that involves arranging clothes and shoes on the ground in public places to stage a fake scene of Rapture, the Christian concept of “being saved” by God before the arrival of the Doomsday. The practical joke became widespread as part of Operation Rapture during the days leading up to May 21st, 2011, which was proclaimed as “The Final Judgment” by American radio evangelist Harold Camping.
Cone-ing is a prank video fad that involves ordering an ice cream cone at a fast food drive-through and grabbing it by the soft ice cream end instead of the cone as the server hands it over. Along with the drive-through attendant’s shocked or bewildered reaction, the entire process is captured on video camera to be shared online. The prank quickly caught on with teenagers in early June 2011, shortly after the viral breakout of Planking and its spin-off photo fads.
Nathan Fielder’s Twitter Pranks
Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder has orchestrated two crowd-sourced pranks on Twitter, asking followers to accidentally texts their parents “got 2 grams for $40” and “If you think u gave someone an STD is it illegal not to tell them? Asking for a friend”.