The World of the Prank

The artist as social provocateur and activist incorporates humor, satire, irony, political commentary and/or direct action to provoke critical thinking. Pranks challenge convention and the status quo and expose prejudices and biases.

Blog Posts

A Visit to Scarfolk, the UK’s Weirdest Fake Town

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The Prank as Art

Atlas Obscura presents a tourist’s guide to Richard Littler’s eerie, anachronistic, made-up universe. Fans of Welcome to Night Vale may be particularly intrigued.


“Digging Through the Archives of Scarfolk, the Internet’s Creepiest Fake Town”
by Cara Giaimo
Atlas Obscura
October 17, 2016

scarfolkIn 1978, the town of Scarfolk, in northwest England, cut its police budget in half. This drastic measure was followed by a wave of violent crime. To deal with the influx of dead bodies, the remaining police did the obvious thing—they teamed up with the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign, and encouraged citizens, especially children, to pick up “victim debris” themselves.

If this sounds too grotesque to be true, don’t worry—it is! There were never any smiling, appendage-finding kids in Scarfolk, because Scarfolk never existed. But the town’s online presence is meticulously detailed and impressively creepy. For three years, graphic designer Richard Littler has been using his design skills and bone-dry wit to write a whole history of Scarfolk, a fictional, supernatural-tinged town that finds humor in dystopia, and is closer to today’s world than we might like to think.

Scarfolk is perpetually stuck in the 1970s, and repeats the decade on loop. On his blog, “Scarfolk Council,” Littler presents the town’s story through materials from the council’s “archive”: posters, pamphlets and packaging that reveal aspects of everyday life. Carefully Photoshopped and inspired by real source material, Littler’s creations pack a punch—with their pastel, large fonted bombast, they could easily be mistaken for actual ’70s artifacts. Read more.

Alex Chang Plumbs the Depths of Telemarketing Scammers

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Prank News, Pranksters, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

A scambaiting expedition leads to an unexpected conclusion:


aotp_office
“I trolled my IRS scammers for weeks. I learned something really dark.”
by Alex Chang
Vox
October 18, 2016

These scammers had called me so many times that I knew their script.

They always introduced themselves as IRS officers with inconspicuous American names, like “Paul Thomas.” They called to collect the $6,000 I owed the IRS. And if I didn’t pay, they threatened to send the local police to arrest me.

They were unconvincing. I didn’t understand how this scam could work on anyone. But a quick search led me to a couple in Tennessee, a student in Virginia, and thousands of others who’d fallen for the scam. There was something about this scam that worked — and I had to find out what it was.

So I got further and further into the scam. At first, I played along for a few minutes and then hung up. After a few days, I trolled them with the vast amount I learned about their operation. Then, on a hot mid-September day, I decided enough was enough.

I was going to get to the end of this scam.

That’s how I ended up talking to “Steve Smith” for 30 minutes. He was a senior investigations officer — the actual person who walks you through how to send them money. I learned that his secret is maintaining an aura of authority. That’s how he optimizes fear. That’s how he gets people to suspend logic, drive to Walgreens, and buy iTunes gift cards to pay the IRS. The scam takes advantage of the most vulnerable people. Read more.


First Date Wedding Prank

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Pranksters

Laura Bubble does a YouTube prank to raise money for Stand Up To Cancer. Says Laura Bubble, “I filmed a first date tinder prank where I turned up in a wedding dress!”, via Mashable.


First Date Wedding Prank


Improv Everywhere: The Mp3 Experiment Thirteen

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Prank News, Pranksters

Thousands of people listening to synchronized instructions participate in an audio adventure on Governors Island.

mp3 Experiment 13

Watch the video:

Full story here. And check out the recent Surprise Press Conference here.


A Peek Inside the Process of Faux-Documentarian Christopher Guest

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Filed under: Parody, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The Prank as Art

Christopher Guest has built a career on the quirks of his passionate and unusual characters, from rock stars to dog-show emcees, while faithfully mimicking the documentary format. As he returns to explore the inner lives of sports mascots, Time looks at what makes his humanistic comedy machine run.


Mascots and the Very Serious Business of Making a Christopher Guest Movie”
by Eliza Berman
Time
October 14, 2016

poseyWhen Parker Posey got a call from Christopher Guest offering her a part in his next movie, she already knew the drill. Having appeared in all four of the faux-documentaries Guest had written and directed since 1997, she knew he’d give her the basic character sketch—in this case, Cindi Babineaux, a mascot for a Mississippi women’s college basketball team who’s aging out of her tenure as Alvin the Armadillo—and it would be her job to fill in the details. “The nine-banded armadillo is limited,” she says, recalling her attempts to crack the character. “They’re mainly roadkill.” She pauses. “That’s an interesting angle.”

Finding the interesting angle on idiosyncratic subcultures and the Cindi Babineauxs that comprise them has driven Guest’s work over the past two decades. Movies like Best in Show, about competitive dog breeders and trainers, and A Mighty Wind, about a folk-music reunion concert, have won the onetime Saturday Night Live cast member legions of devoted fans. His particular brand of comedy, which originated with the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, directed by Rob Reiner and co-written by Reiner, Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, applies the conventions of self-serious documentary filmmaking to unexpected, if not undeserving, fictional subjects.

In Mascots, Guest’s first film in a decade, premiering on Netflix Oct. 13, he and co-writer Jim Piddock turn their gaze—with the help of a flock of returning cast members including Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr.—toward the men and women who dance in poorly ventilated animal suits to bring smiles to the faces of amateur sports fans. Read more.


The Best Trick Wins the War

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Political Pranks, Prank News, Propaganda and Disinformation, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks

Infaltable decoys come of age with military sleight of hand. [Thanks Peter M.]


“A New Weapon In Russia’s Arsenal – And It’s Inflatable”
by Andrew E. Kramer
October 12, 2016
The New York Times

russianmilitarydecoysDeep in the Russian countryside, the grass sways in a late-summer breeze. In the distance, the sun glistens off the golden spires of a village church. It is, to all appearances, a typically Russian scene of imperturbable rural tranquillity.

Until a sleek MIG-31 fighter jet suddenly appears in a field, its muscular, stubby wings spreading to reveal their trademark red star insignia. A few moments later, a missile launcher pops up beside it.

Cars on a nearby road pull over, the drivers gaping in amazement at what appear to be fearsome weapons, encountered so unexpectedly in this serene spot. And then, as quickly as they appeared, the jet and missile launcher vanish.

“If you study the major battles of history, you see that trickery wins every time,” Aleksei A. Komarov, the military engineer in charge of this sleight of hand, said with a sly smile. “Nobody ever wins honestly.” Read more.


R.I.P. Dario Fo (1926-2016)

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Parody, Political Challenges, Prank News, Pranksters, Satire, The History of Pranks

Revered playwright, comedian, Nobel laureate, and prankster patron saint Dario Fo has passed away at the age of 90.


Nobel laureate Dario Fo, who mocked politics, religion, dies
by Frances D’Emilio and Nicole Winfield
AP
October 13, 2016

Dario Fo

Dario Fo

Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose energetic mocking of Italian political life, social mores and religion won him praise, scorn and the Nobel Prize for Literature, died Thursday. He was 90.

Fo died Thursday morning in Milan’s Luigi Sacco hospital after suffering respiratory complications from a progressive pulmonary disease, said the chief of pulmonology, Dr. Delfino Luigi Legnani. Fo had been working on a new stage production with collaborators in his hospital room up until his final days, Legnani said.

The author of “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” and more than 70 other plays saw himself as playing the role of the jester, combining raunchy humor and scathing satire that continued into his final years. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

His political activities saw him banned from the United States and censored on Italian television, and his flamboyant artistic antics resulted in repeated arrests. Read more.


The Time of Our Lives?

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Parody, Political Challenges, Spin, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a lovely duet:


Trump and Hillary: Time of my life – LuckyTV

Ghostwatch Remembered

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Looking back on a controversial BBC show called Ghostwatch and its creator Stephen Volk, a hoaxer who out-Orsoned War of the Worlds.


“The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers”
by Jake Rossen
Mental Floss
October 6, 2016

aotp_ghostwatchAfter more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK’s Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death. Read more.


An Internet Writer Breaks Up With Her Boyfriend Over Trump… You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation

The ferocious and funny Anna Merlan takes an impressively deep dive into the made-up career of Rachel Brewson, the JT LeRoy of womens-interest clickbait.


“The Team of Men Behind Rachel Brewston, the Fake Woman Whose Trump-Fueled Breakup Went Viral”
by Anna Merlan
Jezebel
October 4, 2016

aotp_brewsonIn December 2015, readers at women’s site xoJane were enthralled and filled with all-caps rage by Rachel Brewson, a self-described “giant liberal” who boldly declared her love for a Republican named Todd. She described, in rapturous terms, how the couple’s political disagreements fueled an ecstatic third-date bipartisan fuck-fest that soon flowered into a real relationship.

Mid-date, they got into a “heated debate” about politics, Brewson wrote. They fought from wherever the date took place (she didn’t say), into the street, and into a cab. The discussion ended when Todd—who, as it turned out, was a gun-loving, Iraq-war-supporting libertarian—manfully invited himself up to her apartment.

“What followed was the best sex of my life up to that point,” Brewson wrote, whose author bio said she was a “dating editor” at a site called Review Weekly. “Somehow the political tension between us had transformed into sexual tension. I was hooked.”

The post was a modest success—it was shared just under 3,000 times on social media, and racked up 1,000 comments on xoJane itself (whose editor-in-chief is Jane Pratt of Sassy fame. The site was purchased by Time. Inc last fall). Many of those comments complained about Rachel’s privileged white-woman version of liberalism, which allowed her to ignore “petty differences”—her term—between her and Todd on issues like immigration.

“He flashed some money your way and you’re ready to label things like rape culture and systematic racism as ‘petty differences,’” one commenter fumed. “You aren’t as liberal as you want to believe you are.”

Three months later, the fairytale was over. (more…)

Fake Newspaper Endorses Reality TV Politician

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation

Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump may have his “personal Pravda,” but everyone from The New York Times to the Arizona Republic has endorsed his opponent, and the media at large have taken the gloves off with him. The real estate developer hasn’t gotten any extra love from the fourth estate in the wake of his rough debate performance on Monday. He’ll be happy to know that the Baltimore Gazette has his back.


“Trump Gets Big Boost From Fake Newspaper”
by Jason Linkins
Huffington Post
September 27, 2016

aotp_baltimoregazetteBig media news for Hillary Clinton Tuesday night as the Arizona Republic ― which had never in its history endorsed a Democrat for president ― has thrown its endorsement to the former secretary of state, citing her lifetime of never coming across like an impulsive man-baby: “The president commands our nuclear arsenal. Trump can’t command his own rhetoric.”

But not so fast! Donald Trump has a media coup of his own to brag about. Seems that some eagle-eyed investigative reporters at the Baltimore Gazette have brought home a dilly of a scoop: “Multiple reports and leaked information from inside the Clinton camp claim that the Clinton campaign was given the entire set of debate questions an entire week before the actual debate.”

Trumpet sting!

Earlier last week an NBC intern was seen hand delivering a package to Clinton’s campaign headquarters, according to sources. The package was not given to secretarial staff, as would normally happen, but the intern was instead ushered into the personal office of Clinton campaign manager Robert Mook. Members of the Clinton press corps from several media organizations were in attendance at the time, and a reporter from Fox News recognized the intern, but said he was initially confused because the NBC intern was dressed like a Fed Ex employee.

That’s some serious shoe-leather! Unfortunately there was un problema. Read more.

Inside the Amazon Million Dollar e-Book Scam

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Literary Hoaxes

In a complex whirlwind of a story, ZDNet digs into a bizarre tech scam involving bots, bad e-books, Amazon Kindle, Tor, and one unscrupulous engineer.


“Revealed: How one Amazon Kindle scam made millions of dollars”
by Zach Whittaker
ZDNet
September 27, 2016

Emma Moore could have been the health and weight loss guru you spent your life looking for.

aotp_kindlecatfishYou might be forgiven for not knowing her work — after all, she has a common name, one that she shares with other similarly successful authors on Amazon. Until this week, she had dozens of health, dieting, cooking, and weight loss ebooks to her name. She published over a dozen ebooks on Amazon this year — five ebooks alone this month. And Moore would even work with other authors — like Nina Kelly, Andrew Walker, and Julia Jackson — who have all published about a dozen ebooks each this year as well.

Here’s the snag: to our knowledge, Moore doesn’t exist. None of them do.

Moore was just one of hundreds of pseudonyms employed in a sophisticated “catfishing” scheme run by Valeriy Shershnyov, whose Vancouver-based business hoodwinked Amazon customers into buying low-quality ebooks, which were boosted on the online marketplace by an unscrupulous system of bots, scripts, and virtual servers.

Catfishing isn’t new — it’s been well documented. Some scammers buy fake reviews, while others will try other ways to game the system.

Until now, nobody has been able to look inside at how one of these scams work — especially one that’s been so prolific, generating millions of dollars in royalties by cashing in on unwitting buyers who are tricked into thinking these ebooks have some substance.

Shershnyov was able to stay in Amazon’s shadows for two years by using his scam server conservatively so as to not raise any red flags.

What eventually gave him away weren’t customer complaints or even getting caught by the bookseller. It was good old-fashioned carelessness. He forgot to put a password on his server. Read more.

A Golden Throne for America’s Royal Hiney

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The Prank as Art

In what reads like a pitch for an art film or a postmodern fever dream, journalist Carey Dunne goes on a thoughtful search for the story behind artist Maurizio Cattelan’s “epic troll,” a solid gold toilet named “America”.


“Waiting To Pee in ‘America,’ the Gold Toilet at the Guggenheim”
by Carey Dunne
Hyperallergic
September 23, 2016

aotp_americaWhile waiting in line to pee in “America,” a toilet cast in 18-karat gold and installed in a Guggenheim Museum bathroom, I ran into my friend Fritz Mead, who lives in a shack he built himself out of scrap wood in a backyard next to a skate bowl he also built himself. The shack doesn’t have plumbing, so to use a working toilet he has to leave his shack and go into the basement apartment next door.

Given his apparent ambivalence about plumbing — let alone luxury plumbing — I was surprised to see Fritz waiting to use the gold toilet, which is the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. Estimated to be worth as much as $2.5 million, “America” (which opened at the Guggenheim last week), will remain installed in an otherwise ordinary fourth floor bathroom for a year. (When asked exactly how much the toilet cost, a guard said, “If you have to ask, you already know,” a riddle I am still trying to solve.)

Cattelan “intends visitors to use the toilet just as they would any other facility in the building,” according to the wall text. It gets special treatment, though: only one visitor is allowed inside the stall at a time, for no more than five minutes; the toilet seat must not be lifted; a security guard inspects the toilet after each visit; and a cleaning crew cleans it with a special gold-cleaning product every 20 minutes. The wait time when I visited was two hours.

Read the rest of the story here.

Uncle Sam’s Imaginary Pen Pal

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks

Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog examines the canon of opinion writer Guy Sims Fitch, a prolific non-existent writer for the United States Information Agency.


“Meet Guy Sims Fitch, a Fake Writer Invented by the United States Government”
by Matt Novak
September 27, 2016
Paleofuture

aotp_guysimsfitchGuy Sims Fitch had a lot to say about the world economy in the 1950s and 60s. He wrote articles in newspapers around the globe as an authoritative voice on economic issues during the Cold War. Fitch was a big believer in private American investment and advocated for it as a liberating force internationally. But no matter what you thought of Guy Sims Fitch’s ideas, he had one big problem. He didn’t exist.

Guy Sims Fitch was created by the United States Information Agency (USIA), America’s official news distribution service for the rest of the world. Today, people find the term “propaganda” to be incredibly loaded and even negative. But employees of the USIA used the term freely and proudly in the 1950s and 60s, believing that they were fighting a noble and just cause against the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism. And Guy Sims Fitch was just one tool in the diverse toolbox of the USIA propaganda machine.

“I don’t mind being called a propagandist, so long as that propaganda is based on the truth,” said Edward R. Murrow in 1962. Murrow took a job as head of the USIA after a long and celebrated career as a journalist, and did quite a few things during his tenure that would make modern journalists who romanticize “the good old days” blush.

But even when USIA peddled its own version of the truth, the propaganda agency wasn’t always using the most, let’s say, truthful of methods. Their use of Guy Sims Fitch—a fake person whose opinions would be printed in countries like Brazil, Germany, and Australia, among others—served the cause of America’s version of the truth against Communism during the Cold War, even if Fitch’s very existence was a lie.

Read more.

Announcing the 2016 Ig Noble Awards

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Filed under: Prank News, Satire, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Noble Awards offer ponderous hilarity every year without fail.


From Collecting Flies to Putting Pants on Rats, Here Is This Year’s Ig Nobel-Winning Research
by Mark Pratt
AP
September 22, 2016

ig-nobel-awards-2016(BOSTON) — A Swede who wrote a trilogy about collecting bugs, an Egyptian doctor who put pants on rats to study their sex lives and a British researcher who lived like an animal have been named winners of the Ig Nobels, the annual spoof prizes for quirky scientific achievement.

The winners were honored — or maybe dishonored — Thursday in a zany ceremony at Harvard University.

The 26th annual event featured a paper airplane air raid and a tic-tac-toe contest with a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist and four real Nobel laureates.

Winners receive $10 trillion cash prizes — in virtually worthless Zimbabwean money. Read more here and here.