Faced with jail time, prank site Trollstation pivots to more brand-friendly fare

Nothing will make a person feel more chastened than receiving a prison sentence.

Four team members of Trollstation, the YouTube channel known for its pranks, were dealt a combined sentence of 70 weeks jail time for faking an art heist at the Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery in London last year.

Today, the site says it is reevaluating its strategies and has announced it will be carrying out more risk assessments in the future. It also plans to make itself more brand friendly.“We’re going to move toward more family-friendly commercial content from now on,” Trollstation production manager, Amina Maz, told Digiday. Think more Dom Joly, a shouting guy with a giant phone, and less people getting smashed in the face with fake bottles.

The group of nine actor friends launched Trollstation in 2013 to create comedic, satirical content that Maz claims is to “push boundaries.” An earlier incarnation Trollstation U.K. was shut down by what she describes, somewhat hesitantly, as “politics between business partners.”

The pranks feature the actors playing stereotypes — thugs, aspiring rappers, oil princes– and interacting with the public. It has grown its subscribers to nearly 800,000 through its 653 videos across four content types: regular pranks, social experiments, ‘You Got Trolled’ (pranks on friends) and ‘Trollstation experiences.’

Pranking is an old content format, but it’s gone down a darker road as people and brands battle to get noticed, said Jonathan Akwue, CEO of Lost Boys. “There has been a trend toward more extreme pranks in the rush to grab more eyeballs. It’s an easy option to get people to share something, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken. In the long term, it’s not a smart thing to do.”

Moving beyond the prank, Trollstation plans to shoot a web series and a film, Maz was keen to keep the details under wraps so it remains a surprise for fans. These need to be bank-rolled, ideally, by brand sponsors.

The channel’s more nefarious pranks — guys smashing each other with fake bottles, for example — have overshadowed what it wants to be most known for: social experiments. Maz said it tries to challenge bias, double standards and prejudice through these films. It has also reported on homelessness and the living standards of refugees in The Calais Jungle, where Maz said it wanted to cut through intrinsic bias in mainstream media coverage. The videos are getting millions of views.

It has some influence. One particular video of a Trollstation actor being confronted for breastfeeding on a train is being played in some U.K. schools to prompt sociological discussion. A film lecturer at London’s Westminster University told the channel he plays the clip to students during his lectures.

If it’s hoping to court brands, it needs to dial up this type of video, said Nigel Gwilliam, head of digital at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. It’s not impossible: Both Vice and BuzzFeed have evolved and built credibility over time.

Currently, Trollstation gets a small amount of revenue from its YouTube pre-rolls and banner ads. “There’s a difference in the distance between having the ad around the content and a sponsored content or endorsement scenario,” said Gwilliam. “That’s a far more explicit endorsement of a gonzo media channel, which is a risky move.”

Gwilliam said the 800,000 subscribers isn’t insignificant; the scale it has is workable for brands. But it still has hurdles. And a big one is the name. Troll is a toxic word, but Maz said the team has no plans to change it or overhaul its brand image too much.

“We do want to stay independent,” she said. “We want our creative freedom and not someone else’s imposed on us.”



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