Is there still a place for April Fool’s in the era of fake news?

By Ella Thompson, Account Director

Last week saw the return of one of the most celebrated days of the year for brands – April Fool’s Day.  A well-trodden day in the calendar, many companies use the day to launch PR stunts, share social media jokes and have a joke with customers and the media.

Tactics typically range from fake product launches to company rebrands or rumoured diversification of portfolios. And while many brands skipped the day last year due to Covid-19, this year many chose to raise their head once again above the parapet and add some humour to their communications strategies with the return of April Fools pranks.

But with internet Giant (and arguably online leader) Google taking the decision to cancel April Fools for the second year in the row, is there still a place for jokes like April Fools? Or do brands need to be more careful in how and what they communicate?

When April Fools goes wrong

Traditionally, April Fools gags could do wonders for businesses – from driving publicity to increasing advocacy and driving sales. However, on the other hand, should a prank go wrong, brands can appear insensitive, generate negative publicity, and perhaps more worryingly, find themselves the latest victim of the growing “cancel culture.”

The latest victim to a poorly April Fool’s joke is Volkswagen, with the company forced to apologise after its PR stunt backfired spectacularly, leading to mass confusion and upset. The company leaked a “fake” rebranding with global news sites, including the BBC and Sky News reporting that the company’s US operation planned to change its name to ‘Voltswagen of America’ from May. But the company admitted late on Tuesday that the name change was an April Fool’s joke and PR stunt to draw attention to the launch of its new SUV.

And Volkswagen was not alone – retail giant Home Bargains also came under fire from shoppers after an April Fool’s joke suggesting it was returning to old branding of “Home and Bargain” disappointed many customers. So, at a time when fake news poses a real risk for brands and tensions are still high from the global pandemic, is there a place for April Fools PR stunts?

Getting it right

The problem with the Volkswagen stunt was the timing and execution. Not only was the stunt launch just days after concluding a five-year-long investigation into its emissions scandal, but the story was issued two days before April 1 and then the company refused to deny it so many ran it as ‘fact.’

By mixing fact and fiction, the company caused confusion among customers and stakeholders and was embarrassingly forced to issue a follow-up announcement explaining the news was indeed a hoax. You could argue that sure, it may have achieved a volume of global national coverage not typically seen for an April Fools stunt. But at what cost? Should the attraction of widespread publicity outweigh the risk of damage to trust and credibility for the brand long-term?

Aside from Volkswagen, there are examples where brands got it right this year. For example, Pizza Hut announced a new fleet of scooters equipped with mini ice cream factories. Frankie & Benny’s announced a limited edition “Meatball Bath Bomb,” and McDonald’s announced a three fries portion to stop fry thievery.

Other companies also announced new innovations designed to tackle common problems. For example, Argos announced the launch of the “Treadmow” which combines gardening and fitness while Lego announced the launch of “SmartBricks” designed end to one of the most painful experiences– stepping on a lego brick. All light-hearted revelations that align to the organisation’s brand voice and tone.

What does the future hold for brands?

April Fool’s Day has long an established day in the calendar for comms professionals, providing an opportunity to demonstrate brand personality and have some light-hearted fun with audiences and the media. However, in an era where social media has led to the rise of fake news and disinformation and controlling your brand narrative is increasingly difficult, companies need to consider the appropriateness of any fake stories.

Any joke at the expense of the brand needs to be done right and done well. An ill-thought-out idea risks destroying trust brands have worked hard to build the remaining days of the year, so brands must think wisely before publishing anything that has the potential to damage reputation. This means before embarking on any stunt, considering who the audience is, what the brand wants to achieve, whether the approach aligns with the company’s wider values and brand voice and how the stunt could be received as part of a wider economic or cultural conversations – intended or unintended. Otherwise, they could find themselves opening the door for mockery from competitors and critics who could be poised to take advantage.