Some cultural observances common to specific societies can often need explaining to those foreign to a particular country. Just try and explain the ritual of “Trick or Treat” or “Groundhog Day” to a visitor from Europe or Asia. Even the simplest of explanations can receive stares of disbelief. But every April 1st brings a day of foolery that is international in its origin and universal in its practice. In 1582, France initiated a transition from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian calendar and people who were slow to recognize the switch became the target of jokes and ridicule. They were called “April Fools” and thus, April Fool’s Day was established.
The practice of pranking a friend, family member, or work associate on April 1st each year is commonplace, but the level of creativity and artful application ranges widely as do the reactions from victims. If done properly and humorously, the act can add levity and humor to a mundane experience. If done poorly, the prank can bring about ill feelings, embarrassment, and even harm to personal relationships.
Not wanting to waste an opportunity to grab attention to a brand, increase engagement and broaden audience reach, marketers have been eager to design April Fool’s Day campaigns to show a brand’s humorous and lighthearted side. The day can be a great way to boost sales and expose a care-free side to a company, but getting the prank design and execution wrong can come with significant consequences. Publishing content designed to fool consumers requires some very careful considerations.
Consideration number one, know your audience. Burger King is consistently successful with April Fool’s campaigns. “We like to playfully joke around with what the Internet and news outlets are saying, but never to be mean-spirited,” according to a company release. In the past, the company has launched “new” products on April 1st, including the Left-Handed Whopper, the Chocolate Whopper, and Whopper toothpaste. With a history of using levity consistently throughout the year, Burger King customers are accustomed to the brand’s approach to advertising.
Volkswagen’s recent effort to grab attention for its new line of electric vehicles by leaking an announcement, prior to April Fool’s Day, that they would be changing its name in the U.S. market to “Voltswagen” is encountering some unintended consequences after it was learned that some important automotive journalists fell for the prank and reported the story as true. Making public fools out of the very media giants that the company was about to rely on for introducing the new electric car line-up is proving to be embarrassing, unfortunately, for the company. Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, says “A lot of April Fools’ stunts are clearly April Fools’ stunts and they get positive press and people report on how cute the April Fools’ stunt is but this one seems different. It might not be the best move for a company with credibility problems to begin with.”
A few other considerations to ponder if you want to come out a winner include: “If the brand has never used humor or the element of surprise in its content, don’t do it.” If you’re unwilling to commit significant resources to develop a thoughtful, meaningful message that will extend beyond the first day in April, avoid participating in an April Fool’s marketing effort. If you’re shy about experiencing even a little bit of criticism, it is best to pass on this opportunity.
PayPal’s decision to introduce a new invention on April Fool’s Day, an ATM machine that allowed cell phone users to print money, was meant to be a funny, attention-grabbing prank. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies responsible for pursuing counterfeiters were not amused. Perhaps it’s best to avoid promoting an illegal prank.
Google may hold the all-time example of why never to propagate a joke that interferes with the use of the brand’s product. For April Fools’ 2016 they introduced Mic Drop, a feature that would mute an outgoing email conversation and insert a mic drop animation instead. “Because the Send + Mic Drop button was right next to the regular Send button, some Gmail users clicked it by accident, meaning they never heard back from the people they were emailing.” The backlash from loyal Google users was so quick that it was clear that the laugh was on Google.
In an era where seemingly every comment and message are scrutinized for words that someone may find offensive, brands seeking to perform the perfect April Fool’s prank should proceed with caution.