Sunday, December 09, 2012

In Praise Of Prank Calls

Obviously I don't mean last week's call by 2DayFM DJ's Mel Greig and Michael Christian, which ended in tragedy

For me, the genre works best (and occupies a higher moral ground) when the victim is an authority figure, or at least makes some claim to authority, as in the example below of a prank call to a TV psychic.

That caller - Robin Cooper - is the alter ego of British comedian Robert Popper, who as well as his involvement in hit shows such as Peep Show and The Inbetweeners, is a seriously talented wind-up merchant. More Robin Cooper prank calls here.

Given their high humour potential, it's perhaps surprising that prank calls aren't used more often for advertising purposes. Probably something to do with the difficulty of getting clients to sign-off an unscripted script. 

But here's one fine example, for McDonald's, from 2009.
This campaign, for Apple Tango, dates from 1995, and it takes the biscuit. If you haven't heard it, you're in for a treat.

After last week's events, I doubt we'll be seeing too many prank call-based ad campaigns in the near future. Which is a shame really, because when they come off, it's a very disarming technique.


Allie said...

Brilliant. Reminds me of this which I enjoyed immensely:

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Really said...

Is this really the right moment to be bringing this up?

Cognitively DIssonant said...


it comes down to the balance of power.

All these calls (the ones you're highlighting, the 2DayFM ones, Matt Tilley's gotcha calls etc) are taking the piss out of someone.

When you take the piss out of someone in a position of power it's satire. Ringing a person on the telly who's exploiting the gullible and making them look gullible is the perfect form of satire - hoisting them on their own petard.

But when you take the piss out of someone who is not in a position of power, someone who is weaker than you, that's being a bully. It's laughing while the jocks give the scrawny kid a wedgie and stuff him in the bin at school.

Sometimes, it can be a fine line. Think about The Chaser, for example. They put a camera in the face of Malcolm Turnbull and take the piss, fair enough: the bloke's a big target. He's powerful, rich and puts himself out there.

But, when they walk into an Optus store and pick on a minimum wage retail assistant because they're making a point about an all-powerful multinational telecommunications company, they're just the big kid picking on the little kid. It's just that they use brains and cameras instead of big muscles.

Matt Tilley's stuff, on the other hand, has the power balance spot on. His gotcha calls are mates dobbing in other mates. So it's not Matt picking on anonymous people, it's mates playing pranks on their mates using Matt as their instrument.

On the face of it, calling the royal family and asking to get put through to the Duchess of Cambridge's room is taking the piss out of the powerful. It's a funny idea (although it's her first pregnancy and being sick in your first trimester is pretty stressful so maybe it's a bit cold). The problem was, they weren't calling the palace: they weren't dealing with the power systems of the establishment and satirising them. They were dealing with a hospital and none of the people they spoke to were powerful or represented power.

20/20 hindsight on this and you scrap the idea because it's bullying not satire. In the moment, that kind of thing can be a tough call. But these calls are all pre-recorded. Listening to it afterwards, the first question that should be asked is: the people we spoke to, more powerful than us or weaker? The "fail" with 2DayFM was no one in a position of power asked that question.

Satire or bullying? It all comes down to the balance of power.

Wild Oscar said...

Fools rush in to comment about stuff like this.

Obvious Flaw in the Misplaced Outpouring of Pompous Indignation said...

Perhaps the hospital should have had someone with appropriate skills answering the phone, considering the clientele and the obvious world media interest.

Anonymous said...

The nurse commits suicide.
The DJ's we were told in the UK are on suicide watch.
If it keeps spreading maybe we will get rid of the monarchy.

Scamp said...

@Cognitively Dissonant, I agree with you, and you put it very well, much more eloquently than me in fact!

Bizarro World said...

@Cognitively Dissonant. That's the most accurately balanced statement I've read in the last week.

Pitchforks at Dawn said...

Cognitively Dissonant wrote: "The "fail" with 2DayFM was no one in a position of power asked that question." This is the crux of the matter and one has been conveniently sidestepped by deflecting everything onto the DJs themselves. It is shocking the way the "person in the position of power" has handled this whole debacle. First, misreading public opinion to the degree that he calls the DJs, the "victims", then pre-emtively pulling all advertising to mask the real backlash. The call itself was not an isolated incident but representative of the whole listeners-at-any-cost culture that permeates the station. And where we should be hearing contrition and a commitment to making sure this never comes in again, he is coming across like a Friday Night Drunk, aggressively squaring up to anyone and everyone who questions the corporate governance he is supposed to oversee.