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Can a brand pull a prank?

A brief history of large companies participating in April Fools’ Day for confusing reasons.

Mr. Avo Head, an avocado-resembling Mr. Potato Head variant.
Hasbro announced on April Fools’ Day that Mr. Potato Head had been replaced by Mr. Avo Head, a cooler piece of produce.

This year, on April Fools’ Day, brands have tried yet again to execute pranks.

Mr. Potato Head has been usurped by his “soon-to-be Insta-famous rival” Mr. Avo Head, an avocado. Fresh Direct is launching cauliflower milk called “caulk,” on a company web page with the search title “Introducing Caulk Cauliflower Milk | Fresh Direct April Fool’s Day.” McDonald’s is only pretending to launch several flavors of milkshake-flavored dipping sauce, which is rude mostly because that would be a very good idea. Mike’s Hard Lemonade bought a “landing page for positive news” overlaying the Washington Post website, redoing the nearly 150-year-old newspaper’s logo to read “The Happier Washington Post, Presented by Mike’s.” (The paper’s tagline “Democracy dies in darkness” was not touched.)

The New York City Police Department is not a brand, despite licensing its logo to Topshop, but it did engage in prank day by announcing a new “Feline Unit.” (Officer McFluff has, according to a tweet from the official Twitter account of the largest local law enforcement agency in the country, already sniffed out an “amazing” drug bust.) Virgil Abloh announced that his internet-first fashion brand Off-White would collaborate on a $1,500 Juul. I can’t even be bothered to ask if this last one is serious or not, since the entire world of “drops” and “cops” is essentially a prank.

Each year, the branded jokes seem to get feebler and more exhausting. PetCo is launching a pet wedding planning service, haha? The company that makes Swiss Army Knives is making eyeglasses now? Lol?

It invites the question: How long has this been happening, and why? No, absolutely: why?

Before social media, the incentive for a corporate April Fools’ Day hoax was limited

The first April Fool’s Day brand pranks weren’t that elaborate because they could basically only be fake print advertisements.

BMW started doing April Fool’s Day pranks in the 1980s, starting with the announcement of a “rain-deflecting open top car” in a fake magazine ad in 1983. Fake new features and cars were announced every year that decade, including road-warming lasers in 1989. The car company was an outlier, and April Fool’s Day was its signature.

Broadly speaking, pre-social media April Fools’ was more the purview of community newspapers and local radio stations than brands. There were lots of alien sightings and fake bank robberies. Pranks were regional, unless they were bizarre enough to attract a national audience. (Do not look up North Dakota Y94 radio station’s tattoo parlor for toddlers!) They were not seen as particularly big opportunities for businesses.

BMW’s 1983 April Fools’ Day prank was a print advertisement for a rain-deflecting convertible.

Then came YouTube and Facebook and the opportunity to go viral without spending a ton of money. In the beginning, the weirdest online brand pranks were, logically, the purview of internet companies. These pranks used to be good. Or at least, according to the Museum of Hoaxes (an incredible online resource), they used to be weird enough to count as real pranks.

YouTube’s 2008 prank was to rickroll everyone who came to the homepage, by making every video link redirect to Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.” In 2009, its prank was flipping all of its videos to display upside-down, and advised users who wanted to see them right-side-up to “move to Australia.” That same year, Qualcomm announced a plan to create stronger wireless coverage by “implanting tiny base-stations into wolf-pigeon hybrids that would fly around, but also be self-defensible, form packs when needed, and go out as ‘lone wolves’ to areas without coverage.”

(Google’s 2009 prank “Gmail Autopilot,” which could read and respond to emails using AI to mimic a user’s normal writing voice, basically exists now. As does BMW’s 2007 fake instant messaging feature.)

Marketing Week ran a report on brands getting “involved” in April Fool’s Day in 2009, and participation has only escalated from there. By 2013, toy companies, airlines, colleges, furniture stores, and even the White House were feeling the call to participate in April Fool’s Day. In 2016, Vice asked creative director and advertising expert Alex Holder to explain how brands come up with April Fool’s Day pranks, and she said that they were already becoming a “bit of an eye-roll,” but advertising agencies still get excited because their clients are asking them to “tell a joke rather than just sell a car.”

Asked why April Fool’s Day is important to brands, she said, “It’s a chance for them to prove to their customers that they can be funny and human.” (Note: Brands are not funny and human, they are attempting to stand out and capture human attention in order to capture your dollars.) “It’s also the only time of a year some brands feel safe telling a joke,” she added. “How sad is that? Waiting all year to be funny? It’s like only telling your husband you love him on Valentine’s Day.” (Note: It’s not sad. No matter how smart and funny the person hired to tweet in the first person from a brand’s Twitter account, a brand is not a person.)

Appearing human isn’t the only incentive for a joke. Sometimes it’s just obviously about money.

Low-lift product testing and cheap marketing are the more obvious incentives behind the April Fool’s Day prank. This year, Burger King “pranked” diners by replacing their hamburgers with the famous plant-based Impossible Burger, but it is actually going to start selling Impossible Burgers. The prank is a marketing boost, as is the confusion about whether it was a prank.

ThinkGeek, the novelty clothes and toy retailer, regularly makes its most popular April Fool’s Day prank products into actual products, using the day for free consumer research. T-Mobile made pink onesies last year to announce a fake new phone plan and “prank” tech journalists, but then actually sold the onesies for $40 a piece. These seem slightly less smarmy than the attempts to look human, in that they at least have something to do with the brand’s real reason for existing, which is to sell you things.

The risk of a prank is that it can easily backfire and the bad prank becomes what you are known for. Google did several April Fools’ Day jokes per year for a decade before its notorious misstep in 2016: That year, it added a button to Gmail that would allow you to reply to an email with a GIF of a Minion dropping a microphone and then mute the thread. The “Mic Drop” button was placed in the same spot as the normal “Send and Archive” button, which meant chaos. It was a huge disaster, and the company had to issue a multiple-part apology.

As writer Parker Molloy pointed out on Monday, it’s been 15 years since Google announced the launch of Gmail — which was not an April Fool’s joke but was perceived as one because of poor timing. (The ability to search your inbox by keyword seemed too good to be true!) Google plays it extremely safe now, and this year announced a new type of technology that allows you to talk to flowers.

Obviously, you’re free to laugh at a brand’s April Fools’ Day joke if you need a laugh. We are all doing our best. I laughed when, in 2017, Snapchat made a filter that looked like a fake Instagram grid. The joke there was that Facebook-owned Instagram had ripped off Snapchat’s most valuable feature to make Instagram Stories, effectively stealing its lunch and ruining its business, and that now it was going to kind of steal something too.

As my editor Meredith Haggerty wrote in Slack, “I guess a brand can punch up if they’ve been effectively decimated by another brand. So that means if you’re a brand with a good April Fools’ joke, you’re probably dead in the water.” It’s probably worth noting that fatigue around brand April Fools’ escalated in the age of “fake news” — there just doesn’t seem to be cause to add another layer of deception and uncertainty to our daily experience of the internet.

Arguably, the only real winner this year is Microsoft, which sent a company-wide email to its employees asking that they not participate in any public pranks. “Sometimes the outcomes [of April Fools’ Day stunts] are amusing and sometimes they’re not,” marketing chief Chris Capossela wrote. “Either way data tells us these stunts have limited positive impact and can actually result in unwanted news cycles.”

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