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Bluff Worked Too Well

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"One of the dangers of any kind of psychological warfare is it can be too effective, and send the target into a paranoid tail-spin. That paranoia can be useful... or deadly."
Michael Westen, Burn Notice, "Wanted Man"

This is when your bluff backfires not because it's called, but because it convinced so successfully that you'll never hear the end of it.

Alice tries to fend off Bob's unwanted advances by acting Cute and Psycho and it works. Her friend Carol and his friend Dick witness this, and warns everyone introduced to her, "She seems really sweet, but..." Alice catches on that her friends and acquaintances believe she's dangerous, so she tries to convince them otherwise. Of course they agree with her, yet she finds the reputation still spreads, so she tries to confront it more assertively but...why are they flinching away? Gradually, any hint of fear from them gets under her skin, and she visibly struggles (or fails to struggle) not to scream, "I. am. not. CRAZY!"

The trope can also appear when The New Guy Frank meets Alice after she stopped bothering to fight it and let the reputation hang. As an outside observer, Frank is baffled by the claims made about her and the apparent discrepancy from what he perceives, and shares a moment to learn the true Alice. Frank may just ignore the rumors, try to protest against them, or he may play along with if Alice still benefits from them somehow.

Subtrope of Gone Horribly Right. Different from a Snowball Lie, which gains mass until it collapses, a Runaway Bluff gains momentum even without further contributions, and trying to slow it down may just be Digging Yourself Deeper. Compare Becoming the Mask, when your cover bleeds over into your real personality and changes it, I Am One of Those, Too, when somebody you meet coincidentally shares details of your bluff, Springtime for Hitler, when you bank on losing and win, and Unintentionally Notorious Crime, when a crime goes too well and attracts too much attention. Also see Fake–Real Turn.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable: When Yukako develops a crush on Koichi, he quickly becomes afraid of her because she is a yandere. He is too afraid to tell her directly that he does not like her that way. So Josuke and Okuyasu talk loudly in Yukako's hearing range about how Koichi shoplifts, cheats on his tests, steals girls' underwear, and never returns money that people lend him. Yukako believes them, but her love for Koichi is so obsessive that instead of being deterred, she decides to kidnap him and fix him up so he will become the perfect man.

    Comic Books 
  • In Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, Gigi Allen threatens to out the married Huckleberry Hound and ruin his career and his family unless Snagglepuss names some other homosexuals and/or Communists to throw under the bus. This plan goes horribly awry when Huckleberry kills himself, and an enraged Snagglepuss chooses to get blacklisted rather than help the people who ruined his best friend, which also effectively ends Allen's career, as her investigation hinged on Snagglepuss' cooperation.
  • Early in Volume 2 of Runaways, Nico and Chase con a low-level MGH dealer named Pusher-Man into believing that the Pride is planning to expand to New York in order to dissuade him and his bodyguard from killing them for poking around in his business. In the last arc of Volume 2, this comes back to bite them in the ass when they're summoned to dinner with The Kingpin, who informs them that because of their bluff, Pusher-Man tried to deny Kingpin his cut of his profits, and Kingpin killed him.

    Comic Strips 
  • One arc of Dilbert has Dogbert sell his consulting services to Dilbert's company. He tells the Pointy-Haired Boss that his consultants are so smart their brains don't fit in their heads and they have to wear them tied around their waists. Next panel has him tying a slab of liver to Ratbert and explain he got a little carried away.

    Fan Works 
  • The Dark Lords of Nerima revolves around this: In order to protect a young woman being hunted down by the Sailor Senshi (actually a Youma that had done a Heel–Face Turn), the Nerima Wrecking Crew successfully manage to bluff the Senshi into believing that they are a group of high-powered "Youma" lords who don't want the Senshi (or other Youma) in Nerima. Events just escalate out of control afterwards to the point that the Wrecking Crew have to fight off the real Dark Lords to prevent them from taking over the planet and the Sailor Senshi decide to declare the Wrecking Crew a "Kill on Sight" threat.
  • In The Seven Misfortunes of Lady Fortune, Marinette learns Hawk Moth's identity, and blackmails him into giving up his Miraculous. Unfortunately, she plays the part of a cold-hearted blackmailer so well, that Gabriel, afraid of further blackmail, decides an assassin would be cheaper.
  • In Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail, Grace Monroe, like in canon, boasted that she totally knows how the Train works because she has such a huge number compared to Simons. It turns out she never knew but she would never swallow her pride about it. So a decade later when she's the leader of the cult that has been going around slaughtering denizens, stealing from them and boasting that she doesn't give a fuck about who she hurts, denizens and passnegers are hunting her down to destroy everything she created.
  • Spy X Family: In the NSFW doujin, Spy x Sex, jealous that Loid married Yor, Yuri hid several microphones in the Forgers' apartment to gather evidence that Loid is a bad husband and intends to use the recordings to have Loid executed, while Loid is more concerned Yuri's trying to expose him as Twilight. Since he can't destroy Yuri's microphones or use Frankie's jammer without blowing his cover, Loid activates the jamming device after asking Yor to sleep with him (Loid assumed Yuri would freak out and turn off his receiver, allowing Loid to destroy the microphones and Yuri would blame it on equipment failure), explaining to her that it's strange for a married couple to not have such relations, but Yor gets scared and locks herself in her room. When Loid apologizes for pressuring her to have sex, because a breakup would jeopardize Operation Strix, Yor allows him into her room and he sees her wearing sexy lingerie, explaining that Camilla told her he would leave her if he felt sexually unsatisfied and they share Their First Time together as a married couple. In the end, both men get more than they bargained for. After Loid noticed the jammer had run out of power, Yuri is shown crying inconsolably after listening to his beloved older sister going at it with her husband (Loid was too distracted having sex with Yor to get rid of the microphones), and the narrating text says he couldn't go to work the next day. When Loid decides to call it an evening and go back to his room, since he was ready for just for a romp or two, Yor pins him down on the bed and makes him keep going for the whole night. The following morning, Anya sees Yor making breakfast and asks where Loid is, and when Yor says Loid is still sleeping, Anya reads her mind, and feels that her role as an only child is in danger, while the narrating text mentions Loid wasn't able to go to work the next day either.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Prestige: Early in the film, after Angier's wife drowns in a magic act gone tragically wrong, his mentor Cutter tries to comfort him by claiming that drowning is a painless death, based off the words of a man he knew who almost died that way. Much later on, Angier begins to murder his Expendable Clones after he is done with then by drowning them in a water tank, convinced that this is merciful. When a horrified Cutter learns what he's doing, he promptly reveals to Angier that drowning is actually an incredibly painful and terrifying way to die, and the aforementioned man he knew said as much. He lied about it to spare Angier's feelings.

  • Judge Dee: On arriving at his new post in a border province, the judge discovers that imperial authority has been usurped by a local crimelord. The judge fakes the arrival of an army regiment in order to scare the mooks away and arrest the crimelord, but this ends up working against him when the citizens really think he has a bunch of soldiers on call, whose existence must be strictly denied to the populace.
  • Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson. During Julian's campaign in Labrador, rumor spreads among his soldiers that he has a secret weapon sold to their side by the Chinese. Julian doesn't discourage the rumors as he figures they are good for morale, but when he finds his forces surrounded and cut off from friendly forces, he realises that a Brandishment Bluff is the only card he has to play. Unfortunately the Dutch bring up extra forces in preparation for the 'secret weapon' who eventually overwhelm his initially successful attack.
  • Underground: Andrew's lie to get backstage is that he's on the medical team. Then someone from the actual medical team who heard about him grabs him and he really gets put on the medical team. Only Mark doesn't believe his bluff.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Do-It-Yourself", Miss Brooks would like to borrow Mr. Conklin's tools to build herself a night-table. Unfortunately, Mr. Conklin won't lend his tools to amateurs. Walter Denton "helps" Miss Brooks by describing her as an expert carpenter, who even built her landlady, Mrs. Davis, a gazebo in the backyard. Mr. Conklin, instead of lending Miss Brooks his tools, decides to have Miss Brooks build him a new garage.
  • Burn Notice:
    • In "Wanted Man", Michael pretends to be a black market dealer trying to purchase a stolen diamond brooch from a Corrupt Corporate Executive. He plants the suggestion that other buyers might try to get a Five-Finger Discount, then the team starts triggering alarms around his house to make it look like somebody's casing the joint. The thief calls him back and it turns out he's been torturing the fence who got Mike the meeting, thinking he was in on it. The fence quickly gave up Mike as having been trying to find the brooch, forcing Mike to run for it.
    • "Rough Seas": Mike, Sam, and Sam's service buddy Virgil approach a gang of Ruthless Modern Pirates with a fake proposal for a heist in hopes of finding where they're storing drugs they stole off a ship. The pirates instead decide to keep Mike with them for the duration, forcing Sam and Virgil to set up an actual boat for them to rob.
    • In "Partners In Crime", Michael tries to obtain information from a Polish Intelligence officer, and he tries to approach the man by posing as a Russian "businessman" out to bribe him for harmless facts. Michael thinks that since the Polish spy has Russian heritage, this (fake) shared connection might make the Pole more open to cooperating with him. The man appears to believe Michael's story, and seems to be going along with Michael's attempt to bribe him... then the moment the two go someplace private, he draws a gun on Michael and makes it clear that he's a hard-core Polish patriot, and Michael's attempt to appeal to his Russian heritage infuriates him, since bad relations between Poland and Russia mean he has spent most of his life having to prove his loyalty to Poland and the last thing he's going to do is take a bribe from a Russian, no matter how harmless the information being bought might be. It's safe to say Michael would have had a better chance of success if he had approached the man with literally any other story. The Pole makes it clear that he's going to interrogate Michael for intel in a very painful fashion and then eliminate him, and Michael only gets away because Fiona steps in to save Mike's ass before things start getting messy.
  • A later season episode in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when Will goes to a remote cabin with his crush Lisa. Lisa proceeds to scare the bejeezus out of him by steadily acting more and more unhinged, even tying him to a chair. Will breaks free while she's gone, only to learn this was all a prank by her sorority, payback for Will's philandering ways. He also learns that cousin Carlton had a hand in the set up. After the main plot has been resolved, Will returns home, confronting Carlton with a harried and disheveled appearance as he tells of the events at the cabin, omitting the revelation of the prank in favor of insinuating he'd killed Lisa in self defense (which would probably be a straight example of this trope from Carlton's point of view). This leads to one of the funniest events in the show's run as Carlton's actor Alfonso Ribeiro decides to take a sledgehammer to the fourth wall by tearing across all the sets used in the episode and even into the audience while screaming "No! No no no no no! No!"
  • In Game of Thrones, Tyrion pulls a Break Her Heart to Save Her on his girlfriend Shae, lying that he never really loved her and only thinks of her as a whore, so she'll leave King's Landing and not get caught up in his trial for killing Joffrey. However, Shae is so devastated by Tyrion's brutal rejection she becomes a witness against him for revenge, falsely testifying that she overheard Tyrion and Sansa plotting to kill Joffrey.
  • The IT Crowd:
    • Played for Laughs when Roy gets caught using a handicap washroom and pretends to be disabled himself, which snowballs into a story about having had his wheelchair stolen. His every attempt to escape the situation only attracts more and more attention from well-meaning people.
    • In another episode, the team gives their Pointy-Haired Boss a little black box with an LED light and tell him that the entire Internet is in that box as a gag. The boss and several members of the administrative staff go completely bonkers when the events of the episode get that box accidentally smashed during a meeting, leaving the IT team cringing.
  • In an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Hal is under house arrest while he is on trial for embezzling from his company (he had been framed by a group of senior executives). One of the executives is willing to talk to Hal and provide exonerating evidence, but only if he does so at a location other than Hal's house. Malcolm builds a portable transceiver and houses it in a backpack (so that Hal's ankle monitor won't go off), but when Hal gets to the library he sees a sign that backpacks will be searched, so he leaves the backpack in a bush. When he comes out of the library, a police officer notices the backpack and starts to search it. Hal claims that he's a bomb technician; one Gilligan Cut later, Hal is shown "defusing" the backpack's contents while a semicircle of police officers and onlookers have gathered. Hal claims that the bomb's about to go off, and runs off with the backpack while everyone else is evacuating.
  • In an episode of Seinfeld Jerry and George pretend to be gay to prank an eavesdropper at Monk's cafe, who turns out to be a reporter from a college newspaper and who publishes that they're gay. No matter how much they try to backpedal and/or deny that they're gay (Not That There's Anything Wrong with That) it just "proves" that they're gay that much more.
    • George once created a fake charity called The Human Fund so he could tell coworkers he made charitable donations in their name without actually doing anything (besides printing the cards). His boss hands George a company check for $20,000. When the accountants tell the boss something's up, he confronts George, and George admits he lied...because he didn't want to admit his family celebrates "Festivus", not Christmas. This is an alternative holiday George's dad made up, so George takes his boss to the "celebrations" to prove they're real.
  • Happens a few times on Leverage as a show centered around a team of thieves and con artists where the mark believes the story a little too well and the team must switch their game mid-stream. To supply examples:
    • In "The Miracle Job", the team fakes a religious miracle in a church in order to prevent a Corrupt Corporate Executive from buying the place (by hook or by crook) and razing it to make a building. The result is that not only is the executive more interested in getting the church now (so he can exploit it as buyer bait for a faith-themed mall) but calls in the official investigators from the Vatican to authenticate (expecting they'll either put the Vatican's seal on his new project, or find evidence the local priest is faking it and undercut the bad press of forcing the church to close in the first place).
    • In "The Underground Job" the team tries to swindle a Corrupt Corporate Executive who is exploiting coal miners (and has already caused fatalities) by making the man believe the mine has a deposit of rare ore in it. The problem then becomes that the man decides that the deal they have in mind will bring too much attention to the corners he's cut on safety (and where the money he was supposed to use on it actually went). With the discovery of the valuable "ore", a big insurance payout is actually worth more to him and his corrupt partner than they could possibly make through the scam the team is trying to lure them into. So instead they decide it would be a good idea to set off a bomb to "close" the mine for good (and save the "ore" for a rainy day) and lay off everybody, and if people die in the explosion? Screw them.
    • "The Three Strikes Job" has the team try to swindle a corrupt mayor into bribing them to relocate a baseball team and build a stadium in his city on the property he's been quietly buying up by the docks. The backfire comes when it turns out the mayor has some incredibly dangerous arms-dealing business partners (who are operating out of those dock properties). They decide such a huge development project will attract too much attention and force him to snitch on the team to his own law enforcement contacts. The result: Attempted murder, FBI intervention, Interpol escalation, and the team's invincible Arch-Enemy Sterling showing up to start looking into things.
  • Babylon 5: After the occupation of Narn, Vir sets up a fake Centauri official who fakes the death of Narn dissidents and smuggles them off-world. His cover is almost blown when the sheer volume of death certificates coming from his cover identity's office makes a third party investigate what they think is an ongoing genocide.
  • In an episode of Spin City, Carter and Nikki make a bet to see who can be the first to get a number from any woman in the bar they're in. The episode ends with Carter on the phone to the woman he talked to, trying and failing to convince her that he's gay.

    Video Games 
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons: Tom Nook advertised your island as having "fully-furnished homes", which, being a totally deserted island, it obviously does not have. You end up having to help him build and furnish the houses before the new residents arrive.
  • GreedFall: The Nauts' use of magic to help them navigate the open sea was just a lie to protect their scientific equipment from other nations. It ends up with them being the target of the Ordo Luminis' plan to purge them for being heretics.
  • Timecrest: Sol broke up with Rita for seemingly unclear reasons when their relationship was going well. In actuality, Sol broke up with Rita to see if she would ask to come back to him and continue their relationship. If she returned to him, he was going to reveal his entire plan and marry her on the spot, however, she never came back to him out of sadness due to the breakup.

    Western Animation 
  • DuckTales (1987) In "Allowance Day", Huey, Dewey and Louie trick Scrooge into believing Friday is really Saturday, so they can get their allowance early and buy a scooter that's on sale. Unfortunately, during Scrooge's morning conference call, the yes-men who run Scrooge's accept that it's really Saturday. The lie spreads to all of Scrooge's business interests, and from there to the entire world. By the time Huey, Dewey and Louie are let out of school (because their teacher informs them that it's really Saturday) to go to the department store, the sales' ended. And that's just the beginning of their troubles . . . .
    • An episode of TaleSpin has Baloo pull a similar scam and end up with similar results: he convinces an employee of a radio station to do the Saturday show on Friday morning, the lie ends up spreading around the world, and Baloo ends up with bigger problems than he had hoped to avoid in the first place.
  • South Park: In "Tweek x Craig", the two decide to stage a public breakup in hopes of convincing everyone they're not a couple, despite Tweek thinking he won't be convincing enough. Unfortunately, Tweek turns out to be a much better actor than he gives himself credit; so good, in fact, that he ends up making Craig look like a cheating, manipulative jerk.
  • Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: In "Go Away Ghost Ship," the gang is in a motor-propelled boat using a tape player to play a ship's foghorn to attract the attention of the ship of Redbeard the pirate. It works all too well—the ship rams the tiny boat in two.

    Real Life 
  • In 1941, Col. Dudley Clarke began an ambitious deception plan intending to convince Italian forces in Eritrea and British Somaliland that the British were intending to launch an invasion of the latter. The intent was that the Italians would pull forces out of Eritrea to reinforce British Somaliland, making the fighting easier for the real invasion of Eritrea. However the deception worked too well and the Italians, unsure if they could hold British Somaliland, pulled their forces out entirely. Into Eritrea. Making the invasion harder than necessary.
  • In the final year of WCW, Hulk Hogan was to have a match at Bash at the Beach 2000 against Jeff Jarrett. Hogan had a creative control clause that he could invoke to further his character and did not want to lose to Jarrett and instead win the title. All sides agree that he invoked this to defeat Jarrett by an easy victory, Vince Russo would nullify the results, and Hogan would be upset, say something negative about the company, temporarily be off of TV, and face the WCW Champion at the Halloween Havoc PPV to unify the titles. Where this becomes the Trope is that Vince Russo, defacto head of the company, publicly buried him and "fired" him inside that ring. Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan in real life) felt that Russo was shooting on both his character and himself, quit the company, and sued WCW for defamation of character.
  • In the mid 90s when Kevin Sulivan was the Head Booker of WCW, Brian Pillman developed a "Loose Cannon" persona that ultimately lead to his character saying "I respect you, booker man" to Sullivan (at the time this was a major break in kayfabe that even wrestlers didn't know was a work between the two). Pillman was "fired" by WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff the day after the incident. To make things look real, Pillman asked for a formal looking release to develop this character further and make some money developing it in ECW. WCW sent a real release (with Turner Letterhead, the parent company) instead of a kayfabe one thinking this would look more legit. Pillman used this official release to make a lot of money from rival WWF and costing WCW a top heel.
  • This is why making a bomb threat or threatening to shoot up a place is an extremely bad idea. It’s the police’s job to take such threats seriously, and making one exponentially increases the odds of having a SWAT team (or your country’s equivalent) storm your home. Claiming to have a bomb, gun, or other weapon at an airport or other high-security area is an even worse, as you WILL find yourself tackled to the ground by TSA or other security personnel, and your immediate future will become VERY unpleasant.