A: First we need to sort these japes into categories, because cheap stunts actually come in flavors these days. The "Walking Dead" promotion clearly falls under what marketers calls "experiential" or "stunt" publicity. That differs slightly from Dumb Starbucks — a fake store launched by Comedy Central talent Nathan Fielder. He has implied that he acted on his own, without the knowledge of the network, but the effect was essentially the same: Garnering buzz for his show.
In contrast, it's unclear what spurred "Jackass" regular Steve-O to stage a fake seizure that flagged very real calls to 911, and, naturally, very understandable annoyance on the part of law enforcement. Ditto with Shia LaBeouf, whose new art project features himself, a paper bag, tearful exchanges with fans and curious reporters … and no apparent motive for any of it. (The project inspired fellow actor Jerry O'Connell and Funny or Die to launch their own rival installation next door.)
"The Sorry installations are absolutely performance art in my view," says Michael Ventura, founder and CEO of experience design firm Sub Rosa. "Of course anytime any celebrity does something press worthy, they are furthering their brand, so perhaps you could interpret this as marketing. That said, the lack of a connection to any ulterior motive or brand-affiliation leads me to chalk this one up to art for art's sake. "
So, as tempting as it might be to toss all of these stunts into a single category and blow them all off, we just can't. Let's start with the obvious marketing ploys. According to experts — you know, other marketers — AMC's zombie prank is actually part of a larger trend. Remember the demon baby that popped out of a buggy on behalf of the film "The Devil's Due"? Of course you do. Same idea: Scare ordinary people. Film it. Release it on the Intertubes. Hope it goes viral … and that nobody gets arrested.
"If it brings attention to, say, a movie that wouldn't have gotten attention otherwise, it's a great calling card, not only for a brand but for the agency that created it," marketing consultant Lisa Jenkins tells Yahoo. "You're going to continue to see more of these until someone stops them."
Someone as in, say, a police officer, or a civil lawsuit. We have yet to see much legal fallout from the Starbucks project, or even the temporary post-apocalypse in New York. But that may change if a civilian gets seriously hurt, or even sufficiently traumatized to file a pricey civil lawsuit.
Other marketers are less impressed. A zombie prank may garner short-term eyeballs, says Heidi Dangelmaier, director of the tween marketing firm 3iYing. But if the buzz dies out within a month — and it will — was it worth it?
[Related: Could Heads Roll Over 'Walking Dead' Stunt]
"An armpit fart is going to get attention," Dangelmaier notes. "I could let off firecrackers in my yard and get attention. But is it purposeful and brand building? No. You tire of it eventually because it's really easy to duplicate. It's not even artful, not even inherently funny. It's just ridicule, which isn't funny. It's mockery. It's the lowest form of humor."
Now let's move on to Shia LaBeouf's new job: Putting a bag on his head and letting people sit across from him and try to interact with him. If some marketers remain unimpressed with demon babies and subway zombies, the art world is even less enthralled with … whatever it is LaBeouf is trying to do.
"No one that I've spoken to — artists, gallerists, critics — take him or the 'installation' seriously," Los Angeles Times art writer Deborah Vankin says. Instead, artists and critics have likened the effort to tourist-like dabbling in the art world, or, to a more cynical eye, a crass effort at brand extension.
Art critic Dave Hickey, author of "Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste," put it this way to Vankin: "I don't know and I don't care. I guess I'd argue it's not art… It's just silly. When people show up to see you declare you're not famous anymore, that's just a pitiful cry for help."
Hey. At least it didn't tick off the cops.
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Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Shia LaBeouf
- Nathan Fielder