Imagine your significant other opening your anniversary gift, the love shining in her eyes as she removes the packaging and sees a box for a Hot Tub Wildlife Feeder where squirrels and other critters can relax in a miniature hot tub while they eat seeds.
Or imagine the gratitude in your mother’s eyes after she sees that you gave her a portable scratching post “cat hat” so she can wear whiskers on her head. Or your kids’ screams of joy on Christmas morning as they unwrap the Fire Chief Family Board Game, complete with real fire, mini fire extinguishers and five-alarm family fun!
Now imagine their disappointment (or relief) when they open the box and realize it was just a prank.
Based in Minnesota, Prank-O offers this and over 60 other prank box styles to liven up your next gift-giving experience. And if the sense of humor behind the hoaxes reminds you of The Onion, it might be because the company’s founder was one of the humor paper’s original partners when it was based in Madison.
“It’s great to get out of bed knowing that you’re going to work to bring more laughs into the world,” said Prank-O co-founder Ryan Walther, who also owns the Drink Wisconsibly brand.
The Waukesha native has spent his entire career on the business side of comedy and said he knew what direction he wanted his life to take when he saw David Letterman in a Velcro suit.
Walther was part owner of the Onion in the early 1990s when it was transitioning from a UW-Madison dorm paper to a local publication. He remembers sending the pages to the Madison Newspapers printer and convincing local advertisers to place their real ads in a fake newspaper.
“A lot of people would say, ‘People aren’t going to believe my ad is real,'” he said. “And secondly, some advertisers would feel insulted. The only thing I could promise them was that their ad would get seen because so many people were reading it. We would have people following the delivery drivers when the next issue came out.”
Walther remained at The Onion for 23 years, managing the business as it grew from a local to a national brand that spawned books, a nationally broadcast radio segment, even a TV show and a film.
“We just had passion and a vision for the cause,” Walther said.
When the company was sold to Univision in 2016, Walther left the company to pursue new ventures such as Drink Wisconsibly. But it was at the Onion where the satire for Prank-O was born.
Author Arik Nordby brought an idea called the “Gotcha Box” to the Onion in 2007, which were fake boxes for gadgets like a toaster with a USB port or a Salt of the Month Club subscription. They sold well and after Onion, Nordby and Walther decided to form Prank-O, with Nordby serving as creative director. While the likes of American Greetings and Hallmark dominated the American gift market, Prank-O has found its niche with its unorthodox approach.
Similar to how The Onion mocked the news, Walther said the best Prank-O-Boxes ($8.99 each) satirize consumerism and invent products that people shouldn’t want, but might want.
“Every year we look at trends and consumer behavior and see what’s going on and what we can parody,” Walther said. “Although sometimes it’s kind of like a squirrel hot tub. That’s just funny.”
Prank-O has released several new box designs for the holiday season. They also specialize in joke gift cards, joke soap bottle dispensers (“Hearty Breakfast Skillet”), joke wine labels (“Namaste Fitness Wine”) and greeting cards.
Walther said the company has plans to create a streaming television show with the products, which “may or may not be based on ‘Shark Tank.’
The only downside to Prank-O-Boxes is that the products pictured on the boxes are not actually real.
“We hear all the time, ‘I wish this product existed,'” Walther said. “Arik is a genius. He straddles that line so beautifully. I really wish I had a Bathe ‘n’ Brew shower coffee maker. That’s why we remind people at the checkout that it’s an empty box.”