Should you prank your customers? Tim Horton’s says yes.

Let’s compare pranks. Here’s the latest, and it’s from the polite Canadians who run Tim Horton’s, which according to Wikipedia was Canada’s largest fast food service at the end of 2013, besting even those honest confessors over at McDonald’s Canada.

I don’t know about you, but the whole time I was watching, all I could think was, “Who reassured those people it was okay to go into a totally black hole? Who would walk into a blackened restaurant like that? Certainly not two old ladies.” So here’s Rule #1 of your prank:

1. Don’t leave out crucial details in the re-telling, or you create suspicion around the whole thing.

Secondly, I thought it was nice and simple, and not mean, which is good, but someone might have missed an opportunity to make it about something relevant to the restaurant itself.

2. Keep it simple, but see if you can make it about something that’s associated with your restaurant. “Dark” just announces that Tim Horton’s has dark roast coffee, in the end; it’s not that interesting in and of itself.

If you make it too much about yourself, you risk nobody “biting” on your prank: when Burger King pranked customers by renaming itself Fries King, you could hear the yawn from space. Shuttle astronauts actually reported hearing a gigantic yawn. Amazing.

I got this photo from USA Today, who says you can buy T-shirts with a “Fries King” logo.  It’s not clear whether they sell you a shirt if you tell them you’re only going to wear it ironically.
I got this photo from USA Today, who says you can buy T-shirts with a “Fries King” logo. It’s not clear whether they sell you a shirt if you tell them you’re only going to wear it ironically.

3. Don’t make the prank about yourself in a boring way.

But if you can understand where your brand sits in the mind of the consumer, and toy with that, you can come up with a pretty good prank. Starbucks knows everybody thinks its cup-size-nomenclature is pretentious so it self-effacingly tweaked itself a few years ago; and Burger King used to know what people loved about them, and came up with the best prank ever in the history of restaurant pranks—The Whopper Freakout, which toyed with people’s real-life, actual love for their burgers. Their left-handed burger was also pretty great.

4. As you try to make the ad relevant to yourself, and “ownable,” try making it about your customers, and how they actually feel.

If possible, of course, it’s fun to make fun of the competition and prank them instead of your customers. McDonald’s recently made an easy target for both Taco Bell and Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.

5. See if you can take your competition down a peg with your prank.

Of course, Canadians have a reputation for being nice, and might not like that last one. Which is why this other Tim Horton’s prank might be the perfect Canadian prank:

And, if all else fails, make an outrageous, darkly believable claim and hope for the best. In the only prank to seriously rival The Whopper Freakout, Taco Bell suckered a lot of people into buying the premise because it’s so wonderfully cynical. It happened in the mid-90s, but is just as juicy today:

Taco Bell buys the Liberty Bell

6. Be wonderfully cynical and play off the skeptical disappointment with which most people approach the world.

Basically, in the end, try to make it about something people care about—not just a pun or some convenient, self-referential thing about yourself. Remember: the first thing a person asks of every marketer (even while they’re admitting that ‘Okay, ya got me’) is a selfish, self-interested question: “Why should I care?”