On the art of the April Fool’s prank
by Diego Vasquez
Media Life Magazine
March 29, 2011
It has to be far-fetched enough to raise doubts
If you didn’t happen to remember that the news was coming out on April Fool’s Day, it sounded plausible. On April 1, 2010, Starbucks announced two new sizes called the plenta and the micra, joining such existing sizes as the grande and venti. The plenta, Starbucks said, would hold 128 ounces of coffee, or roughly six times its biggest size at the time, while the micra would hold 2 ounces. Social networking sites were abuzz over the news, while hundreds voiced their approval or disapproval on the Starbucks web site until they realized the whole thing was a joke. Like the best April Fool’s stunts, it was just realistic enough to be possible, but just ridiculous enough to be questioned. In this case, most people laughed it off as a clever marketing stunt, but not all April Fool’s stunts are as well received. In some cases, it can do damage to an advertiser’s brand. Three days before April 1 arrives, Grant Powell, founder and chief executive officer at the digital agency Pomegranate, talks to Media Life about how advertisers can pull off a smart stunt, which ones have worked in the past, and which ones didn’t.
How can advertisers walk the fine line between showing a sense of humor on April Fool’s Day and not alienating their customers?
There is indeed a very fine line between a well-received prank and one that will leave customers upset.
The key is to conceive a prank that is just far-fetched enough for everyone to question it, but still leave some doubt about whether or not it could be possible.
For example, the Starbucks prank would have been risky if their “plenta”-sized drink prank was 64 ounces instead of 128 ounces. The risk would have been that the really avid coffee drinkers would have been excited to get an even larger cup of coffee, maybe one they could share with a friend, at a discount price per ounce because it was so large.
But at 128 ounces, I’m sure most customers realized this was a prank because a cup of coffee that size would be astronomical.
What is the danger that people will actually fall for the prank and become resentful of the brand?
Resentment is a pretty strong feeling, but could be felt towards a brand in extreme cases of poorly planned pranks.
I think there is the risk of disappointment more so such as in the Starbucks example, or when In-N-Out advertised that they were opening locations in New York””man that was disappointing!
What are some examples of April Fool’s pranks that came off very well for a brand and why?
Both Google and Richard Branson seem to have some pretty good pranks up their sleeves.
In 2008 Google announced that they would be partnering with Virgin on an initiative to colonize Mars. A concept such as this will keep those techies following it for years in hopes that it will actually happen.
Similarly, in 1989, Richard Branson manned a “UFO” which was actually a hot air balloon designed to look like a space craft. Very funny stuff.
It’s the sort of thing that totally engages you more than you actually realize until you realize it’s a prank. Then you have this moment of self-realization, and then hopefully a good laugh at yourself for believing it. I guess to enjoy April Fools’ Day jokes, you have to have a certain amount of humility.
What are some examples of April Fool’s pranks gone terribly wrong for a brand and why?
It’s important to remember that April Fool’s Day pranks are intended to be “practical” jokes, and when you deviate from that, the results can be tragic. For example, it’s not practical to call 911 on a prank, or to announce a tragedy that didn’t happen.
In 2000, Esquire magazine announced “Freewheelz,” which was a company offering free vehicles to people who would be willing to drive them around with large advertisements placed on them. The premise was to make fun of internet advertising models.
The problem was that people actually believed this was a real opportunity, and phone calls poured in to the company with very eager applicants who became very upset once they realized it was a prank.
This is an example of where the prank failed based on setting up their viewers for disappointment.
Do consumers appreciate a brand with a sense of humor?
Everyone appreciates a sense of humor. Businesses can get caught up in continual efforts to increase sales or sell the customers on something new, or discuss the serious aspects of their product.
This messaging can get tiresome, and a good break from that with a funny prank will go a long way with your customers.
Are big brands or small ones more likely to “prank” their customers on April Fool’s?
I think larger brands have more to gain from a well-planned prank simply because they will get more attention from it and the (hopefully) positive affects will be more widespread. Small brands might have to put a lot of effort into conceiving and implementing a good prank that not many people will see. Nonetheless, the effect will be the same to their customers.
Is there a certain type of brand (category, aimed at men/women) that tends to benefit more from pranking?
Not that I am aware of. Again, the larger the company and audience, the more impact and affect the prank will have, but the more carefully it must be thought out.
Do you have any April Fool’s pranks planned at your agency this year?
We don’t have anything planned with our clients, but there will surely be some things happening internally, and we may post something on our web site.
It’s all for fun, and everyone could use a little fun.