Whenever a character is being tailed, the pursuer will be very obvious to the prey if the prey would only look behind himself/herself. Occasionally this is done deliberately, if the authorities want the suspect to know that they're onto him so that he won't do what he's thinking of doing.
This occurs in a variety of genres, but is most telling in espionage and, to a lesser extent, Crime and Punishment Series, as both the pursued character and the pursuer should have a rudimentary knowledge of surveillance and counter-surveillance.
Note that advanced stories have clever spies use two tails. One is obvious and when the person being tailed shakes them off they are too busy feeling smug to notice the other skillful tail. Other stories avoid this trope by using a Tracking Device on the subject, allowing the followers to follow them much more subtly, unless they discover it of course.
- Daily Life with Monster Girl:
- Kimihito goes on a date with Miia in order to flush out someone who had sent him a threatening letter. They are followed by a member of MON whose job it is to watch for the perpetrator. Who does MON choose as their stealth operative? Tionishia, the 8-foot-tall ogre girl. The next time they attempt it, they make a much more sensible choice and have Manako watch from the roof of a nearby building.
- On the other side of the coin, it's possible to go back over the whole thing and see that Doppel (on her own initiative and primarily to watch her teammates screw up the job) is successfully tagging along on every one of these ostentatious dates.
- In Death Note, Raye Penber did this, and unfortunately for him he was spotted.
- Detective Conan:
- An early death happened while Kogoro was acting as the obvious tail to a victim who seemingly inexplicably turned up murdered.
- Correct tailing methods are mentioned much, much later when Conan realizes that the car behind them was a tail because they didn't honk when his mother lingered too long at a light and then the driver eventually started smoking, signaling that he'd given up the case.
- Full Metal Panic!. Despite being a trained professional, Sosuke Sagara fails completely in his attempts to covertly follow Kaname Chidori to guard her from kidnappers, as his nature makes him competent on the battlefield but knowing nothing about how to act like an Ordinary High-School Student. Such as jumping from a freaking train. While it's moving. "I wanted to get off at this station, it had nothing to do with you."
- The Full Metal Panic! novels would later go on to state that Sosuke's real job is to be the obvious bodyguard, so that anyone going after Kaname will focus on him and miss Wraith.
- In one episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Togusa has radio dialog indicating there's another car that should be swapping off with him, the way a real tail should work, but it immediately cuts to a scene of him turning off the freeway directly behind the target, and the other car is never seen or mentioned again. And he is spotted by the people he is trying to tail. It wasn't obvious only to the audience.
- In Mahou Sensei Negima!, when Asuna and Negi tailed Chachamaru with the intention of recon/defeating her, they went between this and a perfect tailing; they hid behind corners and in bushes when needed, but then trailing after her in wide-open roads and clearings. The robot didn't manage to notice till confronted. Interestingly, the series' many Date Peepers are quite good at tailing.
- In one episode of Sailor Moon, Usagi tiptoes down the sidewalk after an increasingly annoyed Chibiusa. When she finally whips around and calls her out on it, Usagi leaps behind a pole several seconds too late to even pretend she wasn't seen.
- Batman Black and White: Done deliberately in "Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder", as a psychological gambit. Batman and Robin tail the villains very conspicuously and without a break for several days, so that every time one of the gangsters looks around, either Batman or Robin is right there, watching.
- In Kira Is Justice, Sol notices his tail, a SIS agent named Ronan, due to his good observant skills. Sol then tells Justin, who he doesn't know is Kira.
- in Why And Were by A.A. Pessimal, Johanna Smith-Rhodes encounters this when she realises she is being followed in the street. She deduces, as her tail is a black Howondalandian, he is most likely working for the Zulus. She realizes there must be a second spy on her tail, one who is taking more care to remain inconspicuous, but fails to identify the second follower until she is tipped off by a street vendor who owes her a favor.
- Done in Back to the Future Part II for laughs. Doc tells Marty to be inconspicuous when trailing Biff; Gilligan Cut to Marty wearing a black leather jacket and a fedora as he follows Biff (who, true to the trope, doesn't realize he's being followed until Marty gets right up in his face).
- Bullitt's famous Chase Scene starts out with this, including the chasee's Perfect View of their rear-view mirror as the Forest Green '68 Shelby Mustang GT Fastback crests the San Francisco Hills.
- The French Connection (1971) goes to some trouble to show how a real life tail should be conducted (even so Gene Hackman's character is successfully evaded by the Frenchman on the subway).
- In Eyes Wide Shut, after crashing the mansion orgy, Bill tries to go back to the mansion to find out what happened to his friend. He receives a letter asking him to stop looking into it. After this, he is followed by someone on the streets of New York City. This man was hired by Zeigler, the host of the party at the beginning of the film, to be an obvious tail so that Bill would stop looking into what happened at the mansion.
- Justified in From Russia with Love, because the Turkish and Bulgarian agents (spying for the British and the Russians, respectively) tail each other as a matter of course, and no secret is made of it.
- In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jopling, who has a very distinctive appearance, closely follows Kovacs' streetcar on a motorcycle, and is immediately visible from the window. Due to Jopling's brutality, this may be a deliberate threat.
- Finnegan to Miriam in Hill 24 Doesn't Answer. Among other things, he accidentally has his Newspaper-Thin Disguise upside down (he can't tell himself because he doesn't read Hebrew), leading Miriam to come over and turn it right side up for him.
- Lampooned in Loaded Weapon 1, where the villains are following a car so closely they're in the back seat. Once the cops realize they're being followed, they make a hard turn and "lose them" - as they're no longer in the backseat.
- Subverted in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015). Napoleon Solo is going through Checkpoint Charlie and notices Illya Kuryakin watching him. However this is a distraction so the border guard who's searching Solo's luggage can slip a Tracking Device inside.
- McQ (1974). John Wayne (following directly behind in a conspicuous green Pontiac Firebird Trans Am) tails a Bureau of Narcotics van carrying $2 million worth of confiscated drugs to the top secret location where the drugs are to be burned.
- Mitchell is assigned to stake out James Arthur Cummings, parked across the street from his house. When Mitchell decides to go up to him and tell him he's staking him out, he appears not to have known about it. At one point during the stakeout, Cummings invites Mitchell in for dinner, and soup-related Hilarity Ensues.
- In another part of the film, Mitchell tails James' car by riding directly behind him, which is mocked by the MST3K crew.
Joel: "Wow, they're easy to follow when they're using their turn signals!"
Servo: "Next week on Mitchell - the cloverleaf!"
- This turns out to be subverted when James drives to the countryside and has one of his friends in another car try to run Mitchell off the road.
- Averted in The Russia House. Sean Connery's character is doing spy training. The British Intelligence guy asks if he's spotted the Watchers following him. Connery smugly points out several people, only to be told he's scored nil out of a possible twelve.
- Ruthless People. The crook picking up the ransom money is followed by a long line of unmarked cop cars before he drives off the jetty.
- In the 1980 war film The Sea Wolves, Roger Moore carries out a ridiculously unsubtle tail of a German agent (as he's doing it in India he particularly stands out).
- Sherlock, Jr.: Buster, when the book said "Shadow your man closely", it didn't mean ''that'' closely.
- Sin City has Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba being tailed by a hideous yellow man in a British model car (the steering wheel is on the opposite side). Needless to say, they notice. Which raises the question of how Yellow Bastard followed him from the prison to the strip bar without being noticed.
- Eddie puts it best in Venom (2018) when Dr. Skirth tries to tail him.
Eddie: I'm a reporter. I follow people that do not want to be followed. You have to learn how to hide in plain sight. I'm pretty good at it... but you? You suck.
- Averted in White Heat (1949) starring James Cagney, which shows how a vehicle tail is conducted.
- Avengers of the Moon, by Allen Steele. The protagonists land on Mars and quickly realise they're being followed from the spaceport by a woman. When Otho comments that she's not even trying to hide herself, Captain Future realises that, while ostensibly a tail, she's actually been sent to make contact with him when he's apart from the others, as the Big Bad is curious about Captain Future and wants to meet him.
- The Berlin Memorandum by Adam Hall. The neo-Nazis release Quiller in the hope of following him back to his base. As he knows he's being followed anyway, the Nazis don't bother hiding themselves, as Quiller is working against the clock and has to contact his superiors regardless.
- In Quiller's Run he's boxed in by a large number of mooks seeking to confine him until a Professional Killer flies in from overseas to finish him off.
- In The Mandarin Cypher, Quiller is sent to make contact with a low-ranking agent keeping tabs on the widow of a British scientist, sees what to him is an Incredibly Obvious Tail and asks the agent how long she's been under surveillance by the Opposition. The agent can only respond with Oh, Crap!, as he had no idea they were there. Later Quiller is tracked to his hotel by the Opposition without realising it, showing he's not above such mistakes himself.
- Mika Waltari's The Dark Angel describes the city of Constantinople as a place where distinguished guests are always under surveillance, so the main character doesn't believe for a second that the emperor gave a servant to attend to his needs for pure benevolence. It turns out, however, that the servant is a shrewd man and doesn't necessarily view it as his duty to answer to the emperor (or more specifically to the emperor's vizier) above all else. But more generally, most "assigned" servants are rather obvious tails.
- In The Drawing of the Three, Eddie Dean plays host to Roland's consciousness. Eddie is suspected of smuggling drugs into the country, and several DEA agents are tailing him. Eddie notices the obvious ones, and Roland picks out the rest.
- In a book from The Dresden Files, a magic version of this is employed. Harry has Murphy grab Binder's head and slam it on the table, under the guise of Police Brutality, but he immediately realizes it was an excuse to grab a bit of his hair to track him, so he drives off a bit, shaves and bathes in a river. Which is why Harry also hired a mundane P.I. to tail him, who reports that indeed the target was much less cautious after doing that (though he can't understand why).
- The Enemy by Desmond Bagley. A British scientist runs to Sweden after an attack on a member of his family. A Government Agency of Fiction follows him but only finds the scientist and his bodyguard killing time there. In order to shake things up, they pretend to be a KGB team conducting a ridiculously inept tail, but this backfires badly when the bodyguard responds by shooting dead the man he's guarding after they're cornered. The rest of the book is spent finding out what was so important about the scientist he had to be killed to prevent him falling into enemy hands.
- Averted in The Fourth Protocol with the MI-5 Watcher team. One man they're following has had training in counter-surveillance and tries various methods to shake a tail, but the Watchers have him in a 'box' so that he'll always travel in the direction of a Watcher, no matter which way he goes. The trope is inverted with the man they're following — his counter-surveillance methods are inept and only give him away as an intelligence operative.
- In Going Postal, Vetinari deliberately sends a clerk who is unskilled at surveillance, explaining that he would like the target to become "a little more nervous" to provoke him into rash actions and mistakes. As Reacher Gilt reflects, "if you saw [Vetinari's] spy it was a spy he wanted you to see."
- A similar deception is used by the City Watch in Maskerade, in which two incredibly-obvious police "spies" sit in the audience to await the Opera Ghost, while undercover cop Andre blends in behind-the-scenes to actually pursue the culprit.
- In Robert Asprin's Mything Persons, Skeeve and Co. pick up a tail so obvious that Skeeve's bodyguard Guido doesn't bother to say anything about it because he assumes they already noticed. Skeeve has to resist the urge to shriek at him when this comes up, particularly when it occurs to Guido that their follower could be part of the aforementioned double-tail gambit. (As it happens she's just inexperienced.)
- There are multiple versions of this in The Thrawn Trilogy. In Dark Force Rising, a bounty hunter gets Mara's attention with a tail who was wearing something unusual. In Heir to the Empire, Han Solo met with an old smuggling contact, who snidely noticed that Wedge Antilles, seated at a nearby table, was the most obvious backup ever. After the smuggler left, we see that that was the point, and the other backup, the commando Page, was unnoticed. Even later in the same novel an Imperial tail is actually described as being very good at what he does; problem is, he's tailing a Jedi who senses him easily.
- The bounty hunter in particular was his own obvious tail; as soon as she spotted him he disappeared (to get her to follow him), killed a random passerby, dressed the corpse in his unusual attire, and positioned himself to ambush her ambushing the corpse posed to ambush her.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
- Maria Hill spots several and casually talks about them on her cell phone:
"Tonight's surveillance package: Fake yuppie not checking her text messages. Impostor homeless man; slightly offensive. And the hipster following me looks familiar."
- Occurs later when Hunter and Bobbi have been disavowed. They easily spot the only guy in the bar dressed in a business suit who is not being particularly subtle about watching them, but in this case the intent was probably to remind them they were always going to be monitored.
- Played with when Hunter and Bobbi are tailing Ward in "The Writing On The Wall": Hunter is dressed in the most unsubtle, over-the-top cowboy costume possible. He blends in so badly that he might as well wear a sign saying "I am a spy"... but it's Bobbi that Ward catches on to, because she hadn't turned the page in her book for a suspiciously long time.
- Maria Hill spots several and casually talks about them on her cell phone:
- Done in The Assets, this time deliberately by the KGB, because they want the CIA to think they caught their agent and The Mole at the dead drop, when in reality they knew in advance thanks to their CIA mole, Aldrich Ames.
- The Bill. The local CID are following around the wife of a bank robber who provided an alibi for her husband to put pressure on her. At one point she breaks down crying in the street. Next scene has the detective walking into the DCI's office, who demands to know why he isn't out following the woman. He says it's because the Chief Superintendent shut the door in his face (the woman and her husband having come into the station to complain).
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Giles suggests Buffy investigate a suspicious student after school, and she sarcastically asks, "What, in dark glasses and a trenchcoat?" Gilligan Cut to Buffy following him in a trendy short trenchcoat and pink-framed sunglasses.
- Angel. In "Time Bomb", Lorne is following Illyria around Wolfram & Hart. Needless to say a hat, blue suit and sunglasses aren't much of a disguise for a flamboyant green-skinned demon.
"I repeat, Bluebird got wise. Secret Demon's cover is blown. Over. Hel-hello?! Is this on? (Lorne puts the walkie-talkie away) Hey Leery, now when did you catch on to me? In the elevator? That was a tough one."
- Burn Notice:
- Averted in an episode where Michael is trying to follow his mark. He recruits the help of Fiona and Sam in their own cars. Each follows the target for a bit, while maintaining radio contact with each other, before swapping with the next follower. This way, no one car is constantly following the mark.
- In other episode, the tail (Michael's ally) is obvious and overconfident enough that the prey leads him into a roadblock.
- In one of his commentaries, Michael mentions that this trope being in play usually means one of two things: Either the people watching you didn't have the time or resources to train a proper surveillance crew...or they just want you to know they're watching.
- In The City Hunter, the inept prosecutor's assistant is this while sent to follow Yun Sung. When Yun Sung himself doesn't even initially notice, his father's bodyguard deals with it by locking the unfortunate man in a bathroom.
- Dexter has this all over the place. Dexter, as an experienced serial killer, presumably has mad stalking skillz, but some of the tailing he does would be obvious to anyone—and he's usually stalking other seasoned killers, too. In one episode of season 8 for example, Dexter 'stalks' his victim by standing behind a window and staring directly at him, in broad daylight, for hours, with a bright blue shirt.◊
- Get Smart. The Idiot Hero naturally has moments like this.
Maxwell Smart: But what you didn't know, is that 99 and I were following you to Drago's place in a Control tracking car, did you?
Professor Sontag: Not until I caught you in my rear-view mirror.
Maxwell Smart: When was that?
Professor Sontag: Just after you crashed into the rear end of my car.
- Thomas Magnum whenever he followed someone in his very obvious red Ferrari in Magnum, P.I..
- Showed up from time to time on Mission: Impossible, used by the IM Force as part of their con, and by the various hostile groups they were dealing with, either deliberately (as attempted intimidation) or trying to be covert (which the team typically used for their own benefit).
- NCIS: Gibbs' Rule #27: There are two ways to follow someone. First way: they never notice you. Second way: they only notice you. This trope would apply to the second way.
- Person of Interest:
- In "Blunt", John Reese is tailing this weeks' Number when two college girls returning from the showers pointedly eyeball him, and he realizes just how conspicuous a middle-aged guy in a trenchcoat and camera phone looks in a women's dorm.
- In "Razgover," Reese and Shaw do a mostly good job at staying at a reasonable distance from their target, but they don't expect her to check reflective windows to see if she's being tailed.
Reese: Finch, you're gonna love this. Shaw just got made by a ten year old!
Shaw: What kind of a weird-ass kid uses countersurveillance tactics!?
- Parodied in an episode of Psych, when Shawn shows Gus a series of pictures of a very conspicuously half-hiding man following him.
- In the first episode of the British spy drama The Sandbaggers, the main characters easily spot that they're being followed by Norwegian agents on a training exercise.
- Played with in an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger when Walker and Trivette are playing security guards on an armored car they're tempting the crooks with. Initially it's subverted (in reverse) when the crooks are snickering at the incredibly obvious Rangers pretending to be guards, but in action with the Rangers who are apparently oblivious to the large SUV that's been following them around all day. Quickly reversed when Walker and Trivette secretly switch trucks to one the crooks think it a good target, and Walker asks if the SUV is still following them.
- Commonly used in The Wire. Sitting in a parked car 20 feet away with a pair of binoculars and a partner. 5 guys on a roof with long-lens cameras... Notably one of the few times they try to tail Avon Barksdale in a car he catches on almost immediately, and turns around to drive slowly past Daniels while wagging his finger.
- Chernobyl. When Shcherbina takes Legasov for a walk, Legasov spots a couple that he recognizes as a man and women who tried to find out details of the disaster from him in a bar earlier. Legasov stuck to the official line, which is just as well as they're KGB. Shcherbina points out that if the KGB is observing them openly, it's because they want them to know they're Being Watched.
- In Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues, Luna tasks a drone with covertly tailing the author Crispin Hayward. The drone responds by plonking itself down on his head. Luna is forced to give up the pretense of secrecy and instead warns Crispin against doing anything shady.
- Assassin's Creed I:
- Zig-zagged depending on the mission. Either you are legitimately following your targets on the ground, or you are running on rooftops and can possibly draw attention.
- In general, the assassin robes are less than subtle. So following, sometimes for the length of multiple blocks, a target would realistically be very challenging indeed. The collection of weapons on Altair's/Ezio's person alone should give away that this man is up to no good.
- On the other hand, you can have a group of courtesans around you and be walking directly behind the person you're supposed to be tailing so that you should be incredibly obvious, but can go completely unnoticed. The game keeps reminding you to keep your distance, though.
- Certain missions in the Grand Theft Auto series, which requires you to drive maybe three car lengths behind, no closer, no further away. If the guy you're tailing stops at a traffic light, the correct response is to stop ten meters behind him in the middle of the road. He will think this is completely normal. This mechanic gets passed on to the True Crime games.
- Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has an aversion as an Easter Egg in Eastern Europe. If you're very quick you can catch a glimpse of the trenchcoat-clad Dwarf Gekko, the same one that shows up at the resistance headquarters, tailing you◊ as you tail the resistance member.
- Makoto in Persona 5 begins following the PC around after being asked to investigate them and their friends. She doesn't change her outfit, and is clearly visible the whole time. With little to hide her except a book she's pretending to read. It's possible to actually walk up and talk to her.
- The spy class in Team Fortress 2 if the player is just that bad.
- The Hire: The Driver explains how to avoid this in his narration for The Follow, about how you should vary your distance, moving closer and farther behind in traffic, change lanes every so often, and try to stay in the other person's blindspots. If the person you are tailing turns around and sees you, don't react at all. He even makes a point of falling back a long way once they get out on the highway, since he can still see where she is going in the distance.
- In Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction, Agent Washington is tasked with pursuing the Meta. Starting in Episode 3, the audience learns that the Meta is in fact pursuing Wash instead, and often at close range (at one point, he hitchhikes on the back of Wash's tank). Turns out Wash knew from the beginning that he was being pursued, and was in fact counting on that to lure the Meta into a trap.
- In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Feeling Pinkie Keen", Twilight Sparkle tries to study Pinkie Pie's strange precognitive ability by hiding badly and observing Pinkie through binoculars. Pinkie later reveals that she was aware of this the whole time, but decided to play along.
- The Simpsons loves this trope, particularly with suspicious vans. Vans have been seen following the characters marked "Flowers By Irene" and "Fresh Burritos Instantly" (both with the initials "FBI" clearly distinguished), a pizza van with The Men in Black holding a pizza as the image, and in one case, marked "Ordinary Van".
- Snooper and Blabber chase Snagglepuss into an adventurers' club in "The Lion Is Busy." Snagglepuss disguises himself as "a fugitive from a late late show" (one of the adventurers in pith helmet and monocle). He gives himself away to the detectives as he's the only individual among them with a tail.
Snagglepuss: Egads! I've been unmasked!
- Internal security services will use an Incredibly Obvious Tail as a means of intimidating foreign spies or local dissidents. During the Cold War the KGB in Moscow used a technique called "bumper locking" where they'd stay only inches away from the car being followed.
- The same thing happened at sea. Dedicated Russian ships designed for the purpose would latch onto any American warships they came across and follow close behind, hoping to snatch up any floating papers the warship leaves behind for possible intelligence and to intercept radio transmissions. Though almost all Navy broadcasts are encrypted, it still behooved American commanders to limit traffic out of cautionnote , which made the whole exercise a tension-building annoyance. Likely the tactic was used as a disruption to throw off normal plans with the outside chance of getting lucky rather than out of a genuine hope of gathering useful intel.
- The Soviets even had a class of warship designed to exploit this habit. In addition to the usual electronic listening kit, they were also equipped with anti-ship missile launchers facing backwards. At the outbreak of war, they were supposed to turn around, fire the missiles, and then run like hell. Pretty much everyone involved in these things were aware this would likely have been a suicide mission.
- Also during the Cold War (and sometimes still today), some countries would send incredibly obvious security escorts with their citizens traveling to athletic competitions, conferences, or other events in order to prevent said citizens from defecting. Sometimes the host country would send its own people out to tail the group, making it obvious to the potential defectors that if they wanted to scamper, there were people nearby they could run to.
- One of the classic tailing tricks used against people who know that it's likely they'll be tailed is to send two people - one relatively obvious and one extremely discreet.
- Or to get a group of diverse tails in various clothing and/or cars to cycle on and off of the tail-ee so it never seems like the person is really being followed.
- In Germany there are a few cases of child molesters being set free due to legal technicalities despite being considered extremely dangerous. Police decided to place them under surveillance 24/7 which means that they now have a very obvious tail of at least 2-5 policemen in civilian clothes whenever they leave their home. Of course police go out of their way to be as unsubtle as possible so that their target doesn't forget even for a second that they watch his every move.
- A similar situation sometimes occurs in the larger isolated communities in the Canadian north: when someone comes to town that is a known drug dealer, career criminal, convicted rapist/molester or other unwelcome type of person, the RCMP will often go out of their way to make it obvious they are watching their every move, to the point of slowly following them in their marked trucks while the person is walking down the street. Most who were planning on doing something give up and leave town.
- In Queensland, Australia in the late 1980's, journalist Phil Dickie was working with a police whistleblower to expose corruption-protected gambling and prostitution rackets in Brisbane. In his book on the scandal, Dickie mentions how the policeman was shocked that he'd keep surveillance on a building by parking directly across the street, and had to be educated in more subtle methods.