How to avoid bad pranks on April Fools’ Day

Celebrating the annual prank holiday the wrong way can have big consequences.

April Fools’ Day has been dubbed “the worst day on the internet.” What used to be a day for convincing your friends you’d been abducted by aliens has become a free-for-all for brands releasing fake products and announcements.

Credit where credit’s due: There are some amusing jests. But for every joke that gets a chuckle and a positive mention in a huge list of best pranks, there are a million opportunities to make a misstep that can haunt your brand.

As you consider participating in this annual celebration of all things unbelievable, keep these cautionary tales in mind.

Make good choices. We don’t want to write about you on April 2.

Don’t change the core function of your product

Google has a long history of April 1 pranks, including the gentle, harmless Google Tulip in 2019 which claimed to have cracked the code on talking with flowers.

At the other end of the spectrum is 2016’s Google Mic Drop. A button appeared at the top of all users’ Gmail, with no opt-in, that read “send and mic drop.” When pressed, it inserted a gif of an obnoxious Minion from “Despicable Me” throwing a mic down and indicated the user was leaving the email conversation.

While being questionably funny feature to begin with, the real problem didn’t have to do with the humor. This button was perilously close to the location of the real, frequently used “send and archive” button. It was very easy to hit that button and accidentally send a Minion where you didn’t want to (and let’s face it, in most cases, you don’t want a Minion). A rare bug could even send the little yellow creature when you didn’t hit the button at all.

The backlash was swift. Users said that inadvertent use of the feature undercut serious messages or even lost them work.

Gmail was forced to kill the feature and issue an apology that explained, step-by-step, where they went wrong.

  1. We should have asked you before turning on the feature, and it should have included a confirmation before sending.
  2. We didn’t anticipate accidental clicks: “Send + Mic Drop” was too close to other send buttons (“Send” as well as “Send & Archive”), which caused confusion.

The lesson: Don’t fundamentally alter the use of your product for a joke, especially without requiring users to opt in. The risk of raising hackles is far higher than any potential laughs or positive PR.

Don’t lie to journalists

Most April Fools’ Day brand jokes are delivered with a wink and a nudge. Even the Minion mishap was clearly intended to be humorous. However, Volkswagen broke a fundamental rule of PR and badly damaged its relationships with the press by outright lying about its 2021 prank.

Its first mistake was starting the joke too early. On March 29, three whole days before the holiday, the company “accidentally” posted a draft press release announcing they were changing the name of their U.S. operations to Voltswagen in order to highlight their commitment to electric vehicles.

Such a rebrand would be huge news, and unlikely to be accidentally posted to a news portal. Many journalists were already skeptical, asking if it was an early prank.

No, the company said. This was real.

That was a lie, a word journalists do not use lightly–but they used it here.

“Media outlets, including CNBC, reported (the name change) as news after it was confirmed by unnamed sources within the company, who apparently lied to several reporters,” CNBC’s Michael Wayland wrote.

Even the normally staid AP issued an acerbic statement making it clear where the fault lay for their incorrect reporting.

“The Associated Press was repeatedly assured by Volkswagen that its U.S. subsidiary planned a name change, and reported that information, which we now know to be false,” spokeswoman Lauren Easton said.

The prank had big consequences even beyond journalists’ ire: An investigation was reportedly opened by the SEC, as the announcement had an effect on the company’s stock price.

The lesson: April Fools’ Day is one day a year, but you need strong relations with journalists all year long. Don’t burn all your goodwill by acting in a way that will make it hard to trust you later–especially if you’re already dealing with the fallout of a major scandal over past dishonesty.

Consider timing

Volks/Voltswagen made a blunder by posting their April Fools’ Day joke so early. But there are other timing pitfalls to watch for, too. For instance, last year’s media relations disaster is likely to make media even more skittish around pranks, so take that into account when planning outreach.

But even more than that, remember that we’re coming off a subdued two years for pranks. April Fools’ Day was all but canceled in 2020, as the reality of pandemic settled across the world. Last year it began to return, but tentatively. If you’re just returning to the joke game after a few years off, remember that people are still battered from the last two years and warily watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fake news in 2022 has real consequences. Don’t contribute to it.

You might consider pulling a 2019 Microsoft, and just asking everyone to pass on the day altogether.


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