Is an April Fool’s Day prank a marketing disaster or a good way to get attention? Learn from the brands that got it right, and those that didn’t.
Whether you cringe at the thought or are dying for a good laugh, it’s impossible to avoid April Fool’s Day. On the day, I’m likely to open my emails and scroll social media without remembering what day it is. Then I’ll spot something unusual and think “Huh?” as a brand tries a risky marketing ploy with a prank.
The reaction can be anything from surprised belief or belly laughs through to disgust or anger. So, which brands have won at April Fool’s Day? And is it worth the risk? Let’s take a look.
The BBC’s flying penguins
Let’s start with the best. There can’t be an April Fool’s Day prank better than BBC’s spaghetti tree report back in 1957. It’s full of rich detail about the then exotic food – how it grows in “uniform lengths” thanks to plant breeders and is dried in the sun. “There’s nothing like real homegrown spaghetti, after all.” Some viewers criticised the BBC for using a serious program to play a prank while others wanted to know where they could buy a spaghetti tree. Me too.
In 2008 the BBC had another prank hit with a video about a recently discovered species of flying penguins. It’s brilliant because honestly, we want to believe that chilly little penguins get a South American holiday when they need it. It’s also a clever marketing tie-in to the BBC’s streaming service, reminding people that “when amazing things happen on the BBC you never have to miss them.”
Tinder’s height verification
Online dating users will know the disappointment of meeting a date that’s 10 year’s older/10cm shorter/100% less funny than expected. Tinder released a fantastic new feature called height verification on social media in 2019. All users had to do was upload a screenshot of them next to a commercial building.
While there was some outrage about body shaming, the video got 3.6 million views and the Twitter chat is an amusing read. If only Tinder could filter out all of those cliché blurry lift selfies, they’d really be on to something.
Marmite lip therapy
In 2011 Marmite teamed up with Vaseline to launch a lip-smacking new product to encourage yeasty kisses. It ties in beautifully to the brand’s “love it or hate it?” tag line and got great media coverage across magazines and newspapers who played along with the joke. Those in the know may have been tipped off by the brand having a reputation for releasing unusual products on April Fool’s Day.
ASOS launches clip-on man buns
If you work at ASOS, you’d better know your trends. In 2015 the brand nailed one of the more annoying styles of the year with a clip-on man bun. Claiming “overwhelming demand” it said the clip on was an easy way to get the look without the hassle of growing long hair. Only requiring a model shot wearing the product posted to socials, this was a quick win for the fashion leader for good results.
Virgin Atlantic FlapEnergy
At first, innovating FlapEnergy doesn’t seem out of character for the brand offering commercial space travel. Virgin Atlantic showed dedication to the cause in 2017 with a slick video including Sir Richard Branson. It’s not until you get one minute into the video you realise how ridiculous it is. It’s the perfect quick-fire joke.
Lessons for April Fool’s Day marketing
Brands can use humour to win attention, if it’s pitched right. The best campaigns take an investment of effort and money, even if that’s not apparent in the finished product. Here are five ways to make the joke work for your brand:
1. Does it suit you? Your chance of success is higher if a prank is in line with your brand’s approach – if you’re a serious brand with a serious audience, this marketing strategy is not for you. Content Marketing Institute also points out that if “your leaders can’t weather criticism, don’t do it”.
2. Is it actually funny? You don’t want to tarnish your reputation with a joke that’s in poor taste or simply lame. Ask a diverse group from your company their thoughts.
3. Get your timing right. Volkswagen rebranded to Voltswagen ahead of its first EV release in 2021. But they released their press release on March 29, way too early for it to be considered an April Fool’s Day gag. Worse, it didn’t have any of the “tongue-in-cheek cues normally found in corporate April Fools' jokes”, reports Business Insider. Media reported it as fact and got shirty when the joke was revealed. And as the stunt spiked the brand’s share price, US regulators investigated. A marketing disaster.
4. Don’t disrupt function. Trust the ambitious brains at Google to take it further than a press release. In 2016, the brand added a new Mic Drop feature to Gmail. The orange button next to the send button sent your email with a GIF of a minion character dropping a microphone. That was probably funny until users found out it also prevented the sender from receiving any replies to their email. Bad news for anyone on autopilot that day. The brand was flooded with complaints and apologised.
5. Make it just believable enough. You want your prank to fool someone at least long enough until they read your press release or social media caption. When Lego released Smart Bricks that move out of the way of your feet 2021 they missed the mark. April Fool’s Day pranks need to be ridiculous but believable enough to fool you, if only for a minute, or laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe I haven’t stepped on enough pieces of Lego to truly understand this.
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Sophie Al-Bassam, senior managing editor, Heads & Tales.