The 5 Best (and 5 Worst) April Fools’ Pranks From Brands
Prick up your ears on March 31 and you can hear the words “Trust me, this is going to be hilarious” gently echoing through all of the office buildings on the planet.
A cleverly executed April Fools’ gag can do a few wonderful things for a business—give it some humanity, drum up free publicity, and even bring in leads. However, when a prank goes wrong, it doesn’t take much for a company to appear insensitive and out of touch, wind up with unnecessary negative publicity, and lose its audience.
To show you both sides of the trend, here are some of the best and worst April Fools’ pranks ever unleashed on the public by brands (and a science museum).
Technology gags didn’t begin with the Selfie Shoe or steam-powered video games. In 1962, Sweden’s main television broadcaster, Svergies, decided to play a prank on the entire nation. Even though all of its shows were broadcast in black and white, the company trotted out a scientific “expert” who explained that people needed to stretch a pair of panty hose over the screen to make a black-and-white TV broadcast in color.
In 2011, almost 40 years after the original prank, Time heralded the bit as one of their favorite April Fools’ pranks. By the way, color TV shows didn’t make it to Sweden until 1970.
Sometimes a prank can lead to an unexpected business idea. Last year, Wayback Burgers’ marketing team conceived of a cricket milkshake for April Fools’ Day, thinking the goofy menu item would make customers giggle or hurl.
Once Wayback posted the idea on Facebook and Twitter, fans of bug food started asking if the drink was real. Cricket flour companies tweeted at Wayback suggesting a partnership. The burger company, realizing it’d stumbled onto something, decided to taste test it in June. By August, the Oreo Mint Cricket Milkshake was available at several of the chain’s franchises.
If a company can create a fun gag and simultaneously take a swipe at competitors, that’s definitely a twofer. Richard Branson’s Virgin has a long history of pulling pranks, like “buying” Pluto to proclaim it a planet again.
In 1996, Virgin Cola, the conglomerate’s soda offshoot, announced it had developed a new technology that made its red cans turn blue once the drink expired. As a safety announcement, the company warned that drinking any cola in a blue can was dangerous. At the time, Pepsi had just released a new design with a bright blue can, turning the Virgin Cola prank into a not-so-subtle warning against the dangers of Pepsi.
The Practical Joker’s Handbook deemed it one of the 40 best April Fools’ Day gags ever played. In hindsight, Branson now things that Virgin Cola attempting to take on the titans of the cola industry—Coke and Pepsi—was way too ambitious. Yet the marketing of the Virgin brand that went along with the soft drink helped establish the company’s name in the United States, building the runway for the more successful Virgin Airlines.
Space travel pops up regularly in corporate April Fools’ Day pranks. With private companies like Space X trying to reach Mars, such notions are both on-trend and ripe for mocking.
Expedia managed to be topical, make fun of itself, and highlight its core business all at once back in 2009, when its splash site offered “Flights to Mars for only $99.” To spoof Expedia’s own sales hype, the promo also offered “No Interplanetary Booking Fees!”
Although this is a pretty obvious gag, the company sold the idea with convincing graphics and options to choose a launch pad for departure. After potential astronauts entered their preferences and clicked the “Take Off” button, they were also given hotel options, such as “The Colbert Hotel and Casino.” Of course, once they were on the site, they may have been reminded of more realistic trips they wanted to take.
Reminiscing over Internet nostalgia (such as AOL’s sign-in screen) has become a regular part of online chatter. Last April Fools’ Day, Amazon unleashed a 1999 redesign, hoping e-commerce memories would boost sales.
The throwback gag may not have been that serious—the top of the page openly admitted it was an April Fools’ bit—but it did give a lot of customers another reason to visit Amazon. ABC News and Mashable covered the joke. One commenter on a Linkedin article summed up the intended response: “I loved seeing their retro site today! It filled my heart with nostalgia and made me smile.”
In 1996, Taco Bell published full-page ads in six big-city newspapers announcing that the home of the Gordita had bought the Liberty Bell and would now be the main sponsor of the “historic treasure.” They also renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell.
Today, this bit would get a two-second snicker before being debunked on Snopes. But back then, when the Internet amounted to a quirky message board for geeks, the public had to try a little harder to figure out the truth. As a result, hundreds of outraged people, including staffers for Senators Bill Bradley and James Exon, reportedly called the National Park Service demanding an answer.
While some will say any press is good press, and this bit did get Taco Bell a lot of attention, it also managed to rack up ill will for a joke that wasn’t related to its corporate mission.
In 2013, ABC canceled the sitcom Happy Endings, which had a cult following but wasn’t quite popular enough to stay on the air. In February 2015, a link appeared on the show’s still-active Twitter account with a link to a countdown clock that ended on April 1.
During that time fans awaited a “major announcement,” wondering if the show would be rebooted. The account regularly updated with anticipatory tweets. When April 1 rolled around, the account released the big announcement: it was all a joke.
Happy…April Fools’ Day! Sorry! All for fun. Caspe & Co had nothing to do with it. Thanks for being so hyper-passionate about the show.
— Happy Endings (@happywrites) April 1, 2015
Understandably, die-hard fans didn’t take it well.
.@happywrites you have officially ruined my day and everything you’ve done with 3 seasons of the funniest show of all time has become lesser
— Rob Defina (@RDefina) April 1, 2015
What’s particularly confusing is that there was no reason for the prank—it just left the longtime fans miffed. Eventually, Happy Endings creator David Caspe apologized for a writer’s room gag that got out of hand.
In 2001, the manager of a Florida Hooters announced a beer sales contest for the waitresses on the first day of April, promising that the person who sold the most suds would get a new Toyota. After the contest was over, sales leader Jodee Barry was led to the parking lot blindfolded and given a toy Yoda. Get it? Toyota. Toy Yoda.
Barry, not feeling the force, quit her job and sued the parent corporation alleging “breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation.” After the case was settled, the waitress’ attorney David Knoll told the press that Jodee had enough money to go “pick out whatever type of Toyota she wants.”
The Franklin Institute
As part of promoting a 1940 planetarium show on cosmic apocalypses, William Castellini, spokesperson for the Franklin Institute science museum, sent out a facepalm-inducing press release on March 31, which later went out over the KYW radio airwaves:
“Your worst fears that the world will end are confirmed by astronomers of Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. Scientists predict that the world will end at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time tomorrow. This is no April Fools’ joke. Confirmation can be obtained from Wagner Schlesinger, director of the Fels Planetarium of this city.”
This ploy might be easily laughed off today, but since Franklin Institute is a scientific organization and the release stressed that the announcement wasn’t a joke, one has to wonder. Calls flooded Philly’s emergency lines, and the Institute fired Castellini.
Of course, every organization should consider how the voice of an April Fools’ gag aligns with its corporate image. Hint: An organization focused on science should probably not attempt a War of the Worlds–style hoax.
Shock jock DJs are known for going off the rails. That’s part of what radio stations pay them to do—get sweaty commuters peeved enough about something so they’ll talk about the show and ideally get more stewed commuters to tune in.
In 2002, Kansas City DJs Johnny Dare and Murphy Wells decided to give listeners a science lesson on April Fools’ Day: They warned anyone tuning into KQRC that the water levels in nearby Olathe, Kansas, were filled with high levels of the naturally occurring substance dihydrogen monoxide. Anyone who has recently taken a middle school chemistry class will recognize those two words as the scientific name for water. So when Dare and Wells noted that this substance might cause urination, sweating, and wrinkled hands, listeners freaked out and middle-school students giggled.
Then 30 people called 911, trying to get answers, and another 150 allegedly reached out to Olathe’s water protection agency, according to its superintendent Jerald Robnett. Robnett even described the bit as a “terrorist attack.” Dare and Wells had announced the prank around 6:30 a.m., realized it was getting out of hand relatively quickly, and revealed the truth at 8 a.m. Olathe threatened to file an FCC complaint but settled with the radio station in exchange for approximately $30,000 in commercial time to promote charities.
What’s particularly fascinating is that Florida DJs Val St. John and Scott Fish decided to do the exact same dihydrogen monoxide gag in 2013. St. John and Fish were subsequently suspended from their jobs, and the station had to tell listeners that dihydrogen monoxide is just water during commercial breaks.
It goes to show, even if you trick someone with a big prank, it’s more important to make sure that you don’t wind up looking like the fool when it’s all over.Image by Buzzfeed