By Richard Lawrence-Allen
Every year as 1st April rolls around, people look over their shoulders and question everything they hear and see with a little bit more vigour than usual to avoid the moniker of April Fool. However, it’s not just your local pranksters that are in their element on April Fools’ Day anymore. Thanks to various social media platforms, marketing companies are now getting involved in the fun with a greater reach than ever before.
April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain largely in the 18th century, and became a two-day event in Scotland. During this two-day celebration, the fun would begin on the first day by ‘hunting the gowk (cuckoo/fool)’ where people were sent on phony errands, followed by Tailie Day where people would play pranks focused on others’ posteriors, such as pinning signs on people’s bottoms reading ‘kick me’ or pinning fake tails on them.
Nowadays, while many practical jokes are seen played out in many a home and workplace around the world, it is the pranks played by news agencies and retail/marketing outlets that really have the biggest impact. This isn’t a new trend by any means. All the way back in 1957, the BBC reported that Swiss farmers had seen a record high level of spaghetti crops and even showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees! In 1996, American company Taco Bell caused quite a stir for April Fools’ Day when it announced it had agreed to purchase a national monument, the Liberty Bell, and re-named it the Taco Liberty Bell! Later, in 1998, another fast food chain would cause confusion for some when a few bewildered customers walked into Burger King outlets trying to purchase a "Left-Handed Whopper" burger, finding out that the announcement of this ridiculous sounding product was of course just a joke!
However, recent years have most definitely seen a marked increase in large corporations joining in with April Fools’ Day celebrations, thanks largely to the rapid global expansion of social media platforms.
Large companies aren’t solely participating in April Fools’ Day fun just for the simple joy of it. April Fools’ Day gives corporations a great opportunity to engage with their target audience in a new way and target their marketing strategies into a single fun-filled event for typically little to no cost. Corporations often feel like faceless organisations interested in nothing more than making as much money as possible. However, April Fools’ Day gives the opportunity for large-scale retail giants and other business to consumer enterprises to exhibit a humanising sense of humour and get a vast array of people talking about the brand in a positive light, increasing their engagement with the marketplace.
One such example of cost-effective viral marketing this year comes from the toy company, Lego. Lego used April Fools’ Day to announce a new (fictitious) mobile app entitled ‘Find My Brick’, a parody of the commonly seen ‘Find My Phone’ application that most modern smart phones offer. The premise was that the app would be able to scan a pile of miscellaneous Lego bricks and highlight on the photo the particular brick that was needed next. To gauge the impact that this prank had for Lego’s marketing, looking at their social media engagements on Facebook for the year 2018-2019, you can see slightly fewer than 3000 interactions per post, however this rocketed to over 36 000 posts for April Fools’ Day.
This remarkable effect was seen by numerous large companies in regard to their April Fools’ Day posts and so this shows a great potential in this essentially cost-free social media marketing. Several brands, noting this effect, try to use their social media platforms to engage with customers in humorous ways throughout the entire year, rather than keeping their wit for a single day each year. However, big brands should be aware to thoroughly think through any major pranks before implementing them.
In 2016, internet giant Google came under fire after introducing a “mic drop” button, adjacent to the “send” button of their Gmail electronic message system on April Fools’ Day. This option sent a GIF of an animated film character dropping a microphone to the email recipient. This function also muted the email thread however, leading many users to believe that their messages had been deleted and that they were now unrecoverable. Google were forced to issue several apologies following this incident, after several companies complained of losing important professional emails by accidentally using the wrong send button. Google blamed the mishaps on bug in their system. Google’s later attempts at humour have vastly improved. This year’s April Fools’ Day announcement from Google was to unveil a new piece of technology capable of communicating with tulips, a parody of their announcement of the new Google Assistant system, which gained much praise for its humour.
If a company wishes to engage in a viral marketing campaign on April Fools’ Day, it truly needs to be tuned into their target audience and current users/customers to avoid a backlash. Jokes should always be monitored for poor taste and are best when they poke fun at the company itself, rather than their customer base. Brands should also make sure that their jokes do not impact on the overall workings of their business; customers should still be able to enjoy a normal service whilst enjoying a chuckle at the brand’s humour at the same time.
April Fools’ Day marketing can reap great rewards in terms of engaging current and potentially new customers; however there are always risks to this type of advertising. Humour is subjective and one can’t always predict that a joke will be taken in the spirit in which it was intended. International brand Microsoft have gone as far as banning employees from taking part in April Fools’ Day shenanigans, deciding that there is more to lose from a mishandled campaign than there is to gain from a well-executed one. This will be different for every company, and marketing executives must decide if this type of humour is truly reflective of their brand before engaging in April Fools’ Day stunts. This type of marketing is a delicate balance of risk and reward, sometimes the risk pays off spectacularly and sometimes the rewards are lost altogether. Caution is required.