A media prank is a type of media event, perpetrated by staged speeches, activities, or press releases, designed to trick legitimate journalists into publishing erroneous or misleading articles. The term may also refer to such stories if planted by fake journalists, as well as the false story thereby published. A media prank is a form of culture jamming generally done as performance art or a practical joke for purposes of a humorous critique of mass media.
In May 1927, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was known as one of the fiercest pranksters at the École Normale Superieure organized with his comrades Nizan, Larroutis, Baillou and Herland, a media prank following Charles Lindbergh's successful New York-Paris flight. Sartre & Co. called newspapers telling them that Lindbergh would be awarded an honorary degree by the École. Many newspapers including Le Petit Parisien announced the event on May 25 and thousands showed up, unaware that they were witnessing a stunt with a look-alike. A scandal followed resulting in the resignation of the École director Gustave Lanson.
One well-known 1967 prank, orchestrated by Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg and chronicled in Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, involved a mock gathering protesting the Vietnam War (that many media took as a serious but misguided effort) intended to levitate the Pentagon.
Joey Skaggs is one of the most prolific creators of media pranks in the United States, often using actors to stage outlandish public events that are then covered by news media as real stories. Among his many pranks, he convinced United Press International to report that cockroach hormones had been identified as a cure for arthritis, and tricked WABC-TV in New York city to create a news segment (which was nominated for an Emmy Award despite being untrue) about a supposed "cathouse for dogs".
The band Negativland is (according to Time Magazine) "better known for media pranks than records". The band, as an excuse for cancelling an upcoming tour, issued a press release claiming that a teenager who had committed a multiple ax murder did so after arguing with his parents over the meaning of its song, Christianity Is Stupid. The story was picked up and reprinted as true by mass media, and the band wrote later songs about having perpetrated the hoax. In 2003 the band issued a series of press releases accusing Seattle, Washington radio station KJR-FM of playing 1980s music despite claiming it only played "the best of the 60s and 70s" then, after the radio station changed its format, issued more press releases announcing that it had all been a prank.
Beginning in 1999 with the fake campaign-oriented website gwbush.com, the Yes Men have impersonated famous celebrities, politicians, and business officials at appearances, interviews, websites, and other media to make political points.
In December, 2009 an Argentina news station fell victim to a media prank. Acting on a Facebook link, an investigative reporter believed that the latest trend in underage drinking was tied to a new cocktail mix called Grog XD. Unbeknown to the reporter, the recipe was from the video game The Secret of Monkey Island.
Although media pranks may serve as legitimate criticism of the press, and artistic creations in their own right, they are often criticized not only for the disruption they cause but as simple publicity stunts that take advantage of the very failures of mass media that they ostensibly oppose. Skaggs has criticized the Flash mob movement, as being frivolous and lacking the countercultural element of more serious protest art.