In preparation for this upcoming April Fools’ Day, here’s my annual post of guidelines for marketers hoping to pull off an epic prank.
Every year someone tries to make something go totally viral by posting an all-in-good-fun hoax on the Internet on April 1st. A well-crafted prank can bring much needed love and attention to many small brands that wouldn’t get it otherwise, as well as some big brands that don’t necessarily need it. I know. I’ve done it. A few years ago, while promoting an Off-Off-Broadway play, I issued a fake press release announcing that the producers had won an unprecedented trademark infringement suit on the words “scrambled eggs”. While it didn’t necessarily go viral, it did deliver the best traffic we’d had to date and started some word-of-mouth buzz in the New York theater community. All in all, I felt it was successful and served its intended purpose. However, it took some convincing for the producers to agree to it, during which I was forced to examine my own theory and philosophy around posting such content. Following are my Five Rules for Fools’ along with some epic examples to illustrate each one:
That includes yourself! The annals are full of businesses that shot themselves in the foot by promising something undeliverable on April Fools’ Day, only to have it cost them dearly in terms of time, money and reputation. They thought “everyone would just get it”. Just take a look at this misfire by Google from 2016: April Fools Fail.
Also, be very careful of unwittingly roping some unsuspecting party into your fun and frivolity. Before you use a fake name in your prank, google it to make sure a real person or company won’t suffer the backlash. Even a close misspelling can cause problems. Things live forever on the Internet. Do you want your prank coming back to haunt you year after year? If it tanks, people will hold it up as a bad example every time the date rolls around. There are other ways a joke can cause harm, so just think it through before you hit “Post”.
|The Epic Fail: On April 2, 2012, Boston University printed an April Fools’ edition of it’s student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, in which several of its stories made light of rape, with which two BU hockey players had just been charged a few months earlier. There were calls for the Editor-in-Chief to resign. The paper wound up issuing an apology. Kids these days, huh?|
After all, you want people thinking about you in a positive light when the whole thing is over. The joke should somehow illuminate what you do or at least make people curious. To me, that’s one of the key objectives of an April Fools’ prank: To draw in a new audience.
|The Epic Shoulder Shrug: On April 1st, 2011, Groupon announced that it had applied for a patent to own April Fools’ Day. Meh.|
With Scrambled Eggs, our business goal was to drive traffic to our website, where the “Buy Tickets Now!” button was prominently displayed. We know that traffic definitely spiked dramatically (pardon the pun), although it was hard to gauge the impact on ticket sales. I can only surmise that it didn’t hurt, because we eventually sold out the run.
|The Epic Fail: SoundCloud is a web-based audio platform that decided to tweak its customers on April Fools’ Day by tweaking its interface slightly with a very oddly placed “new feature”. This caused a tremendous backlash because customers were apparently tired of seeming endless unwanted changes to the site. You can read more about it here. Needless to say, this didn’t generate a lot of new customer traffic.|
One of the reasons that the Groupon joke didn’t work is that it’s too transparent. By referencing April Fools’ Day they instantly gave it away. The fact that anyone can file for a patent on anything also takes the bite out of it. Had they said they’d been awarded a patent on something silly or innocuous, that would have been different. One of the things the producers of Scrambled Eggs objected to was how “legal” our press release sounded. They didn’t want to look litigious. Understood, but I wanted it to sound like it was intended to go to law journals and the like. I argued that it had to seem like it wasn’t meant for public consumption or people would immediately know it was a prank. We didn’t fool everybody, but guess who we did fool? Lawyers! An attorney I know googled around for more information because, he said, “Donald Trump filed for a trademark on the words ‘You’re fired!'” Of course, we sprinkled it with clues. Our law firm was a list of chicken breeds (the producers’ idea once they got on board). So say it with a straight face, cross your T’s, dot your I’s and sell it!
|The Epic Win: On April 1st, 2002, the people over at ThinkGeek, an online retailer of weird and wild tech gadgetry, advertised the Desktop Zero-Point Infinite Power Generator, which people from all over the world still try to order online. They’ve never actually charged anyone the $200 price tag at checkout. Perhaps they should charge a gullibility fee.|
And I mean everyone! Don’t post a fake fundraising effort for a real charity. When the joke is revealed, they won’t be laughing. In March 2013, Oregon Girl Scout troops were duped into ordering 6,000 boxes of cookies for someone who ordered them as a hoax. But the worst April Fools’ joke of all time has to be…
|The Truly Epic Fail: In April 2000, 60 people made the long trek to Baia Mare, a squalid Romanian prison, on the news that their loved ones were finally being released after long incarcerations only to discover that the newspaper Opinia had printed the information as an April Fools’ joke.|