Even though April Fools’ Day hasn’t arrived yet, the pranks have already begun.
Since big brands’ embrace of April Fools’ Day resurfaced last year – after a year of hibernation due to the COVID shutdown – some have attempted to get a head start on the pranks. It’s the most recent twist on a holiday that dates back centuries.
Most infamously, Volkswagen caused a stir last year when it revealed three days before April Fools’ Day that the German automaker would be changing its name in the United States to “Voltswagen” as a sign of its commitment to electric vehicles. However, it turned out to be a badly executed joke.
It’s a simple turn of the calendar, the ending of a month and the beginning of another. So how did it become a time for jokes and pranks?
According to a history of the holiday written by Stephen Winick of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, the earliest – and cleanest – historical reference comes in a Flemish poem from 1561 in which a nobleman sends his servant on “fool’s errands” on April 1 in a Flemish poem.
People who were slow to adopt the change of calendar from the last week of March to January 1 – due to the Council of Trent’s decree to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar – were dubbed “April fools” and played tricks on, according to History.com.
April Fools’ Day had become a staple of American culture by the nineteenth century. According to the Encyclopedia of American Folklore, Mark Twain is credited with saying, “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.”
Returning to Volkswagen’s April Fools’ joke, the company finally admitted on March 30, 2021 that the name change announcement was a hoax. Many news organizations had inquired whether the name change was a joke before publishing stories about it, but had been assured that the announcement was genuine.
Rita McGrath, a Columbia Business School professor and corporate strategy expert, says that getting that April Fools’ Day boost in attention for your brand without hurting it requires walking a fine line.
Volkswagen’s ruse from 2021, on the other hand, went too far. “It was a blunder.”
“April Fool’s Day is definitely useful as a way of breaking through the clutter of messaging most of us are exposed to,” McGrath said in an email exchange. “The benefit of the day-before-and-then-we-were-just-kidding strategy is that it could be JUST plausible enough that people start talking about but not a big serious commitment that would provoke a backlash when the company pulls back.”
A new Google Gmail feature called the Mic Drop included a GIF of a yellow animated minion dropping a microphone, which was another April Fools’ Day prank gone wrong. Unintentionally, the joke feature was attached to many emails and had to be disabled.
“We’ll be doing a series of these things,” White House spokesperson Mike McCurry said at the time, according to the Inquirer, on the 25th anniversary of the stunt. The Lincoln Memorial will be renovated by Ford Motor Company. “It’ll be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial,” says the narrator.
April Fools’ jokes are made more dangerous by the fact that humor is subjective. The Taco Bell prank, on the other hand, was spot on. “Whether you agreed with the prank or not, it certainly generated buzz that in turn converted to significantly increased sales for the company,” McGrath said.
Hellmann’s first dessert mayonnaise – Hellmann’s Mayonnaise – was an early entrant. Butterfinger is used in this recipe. Consider it a sandwich spread version of a Dairy Queen Blizzard.
Expect the good times to last all day.
Velveeta’s new line of V by Velveeta beauty products, including moisturizer and night cream, was one of last year’s best April Fools’ teases. The prank video said, “The creaminess of Velveeta, now in skincare.” Parents wished at least one prank product pitch was true: LEGO’s SmartBricks, toy building block pieces that could automatically move out of the way when a person approached.