April Fool’s Day: PR or Peril?

Many consumer products marketers and IP owners were back with April Fool’s Day pranks in 2021, after a break last year due to the pandemic still being in its early weeks.

Some examples of the trickery on April 1 last week were tied to current events, as when Wildbrain’s Teletubbies announced their own NFT, the Tubbycoin, or The Smurfs said they would turn their blue characters pink on certain consumer products for a limited time due to blue dye shortages caused by the container ship incident in the Suez Canal. Other pranks took the form of crazy collaborations, such as Harpoon Brewery’s purported tie-in with Dunkin’ for Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Brown Ale, “brewed with real breakfast sandwiches straight from Dunkin’.” And there were plenty of the now-typical out-there new product releases, such as the V by Velveeta skincare line.

After years of such pranks by corporations of all types, some lessons have been learned about this widely used but somewhat risky marketing hook:

  • It’s hard to stand out. Because each year brings so many April Fool’s efforts, with more brands joining the fray annually, it is getting increasingly difficult to capture that element of surprise that is central to any April Fool’s prank. In recent years, numerous brands have offered faux beauty products, from restaurant chain Frankie & Benny’s meatball bath bomb to Huda Beauty’s bag-of-desert-sand exfoliant. Similarly, products and services humanizing pets have become commonplace. Instances in the past couple of years have included Petco’s wedding-planning service for pets; the Rent the Runway pet apparel subscription service, where dogs and cats can match their ensembles to their humans’ attire; Logitech’s Dogitech K923 Chewforce racing-game steering wheel, set forth as a dog-adapted version of its real G923 Trueforce Racing Wheel; and Glamsquad’s and Wag!’s collaboration for a styling service specializing in matching hairdos for people and their pets. While beauty and pets are certainly topics with endless appeal to a wide swath of the population, and some of the executions are clever, there is always the danger of getting lost in the crowd and losing the impact of the promotion when the market becomes saturated with certain themes.
  • Timing matters. The idea of April Fool’s pranks is to dupe consumers and the media—for a brief period—in a fun but brand-appropriate way before coming clean. Starting the joke too early and sticking with it too long are a recipe for failure. This year’s Voltswagen episode, where VW announced several days before April 1 that it would rebrand in the U.S. to emphasize its electric cars, was taken for real by many, attracting a lot of serious media coverage, consumer head-scratching, and not-positive viral conversation before the company finally admitted the news was not true. The element of surprise is a good thing in an April Fool’s campaign, but confusion, especially if it lingers, can be bad for a brand.
  • Your joke may not be as crazy as you think. As more corporations create real-life novelty merchandise that is creative and conversation-starting, on a year-round basis, it can be hard to identify the line between real and prank. White Castle’s protein powder supplement made from 100% slider-with-onions or Peeps’ purported collaboration with Green Giant on a package of cauliflower-flavored Peeps bunnies are clearly fake. But a few years ago Peeps-branded, marshmallow-flavored Pepsi, a real limited-edition product introduced for this year’s Easter season, would likely have been viewed as a prank too. In South Africa this year, Jameson announced it had introduced a skincare range for women and men called Beatha, made from Jameson whiskey, barley, and other ingredients to revitalize and hydrate skin so it feels “twice as smooth.” The “news,” supported by realistic-sounding messaging and a tie-in with a model and TV presenter, was taken at face value by a number of media outlets and endured some angry blowback from consumers. The fact that this product is not at all far out of the realm of possibility in today’s spectrum of corporate merchandise likely contributed to the confusion.
  • Is it a trick or a test? Some pranks developed for April Fool’s Day become real products. Marketers, from Cheetos with its Cheeteau perfume in 2014 to Jack Links with its Jerky Cologne this year, sometimes create a limited amount of real merchandise, which can serve as a perk for fans but also as a test of whether the item could fly in real life. Way back in 2008, ThinkGeek, a purveyor of pop-culture novelty products, offered an April Fool’s Star Wars sleeping bag that allowed fans of The Empire Strikes Back to sleep inside a creature called a taunton, emulating a famous scene from the film in which Han Solo cuts open a live taunton so Luke Skywalker can stay warm inside it during subzero temperatures. The prank attracted many fan purchase requests and subsequently became a real offering. Since then, the company’s April Fool’s products often live on. While this technique makes sense for ThinkGeek or other marketers known for their novelty merchandise, some companies run a risk of overtly commercializing, in cynical consumers’ eyes, what they see as a holiday focused on simple fun.

Marketing against April Fool’s Day has long been fraught with these perils. The danger has intensified over time, however. These types of pranks have become expected by consumers, who are also increasingly, vocally, and virally critical if they do not like the implementation. The current “fake news” environment also makes it more difficult to successfully navigate the line between unexpected and misunderstood, as does the fact that quick-service restaurant, snack food, and other marketers release novelty merchandise that is April Fool’s-esque on a year-round basis.

Despite the challenges, April Fool’s initiatives—if executed well to spark surprise and delight while staying on-brand—can achieve the hoped-for result of raising awareness for a marketer and placing its brand in a positive light.

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