Welcome to April Fools Day, the Nadir of Branded Fun
April Fools – like everything we used to hold dear to us – is now dominated by brands being very crap.
McDonald's 2019 April Fools gag: milkshake sauce pots.
Brands are our friends now. Our only friends. Here is Doritos, in your house, on your birthday. "SURPRISE!" Doritos says. You are too tired for this. You worked a full day and you made your plans to celebrate already (quiet one in the pub this coming Saturday, and not now: 7PM on a Tuesday night). You just got off the phone with your mum, and that's always fun for the first 20 minutes, then slowly more exhausting for the next 45. You just want to sit in front of the TV with some comfy socks on and eat an entire microwaveable risotto.
"What are we doing, then?" Doritos says. You and Doritos made friends about two years ago and you always feel like Doritos is somehow using you for something. Doritos only texts at those odd hours and in those little flurry-like bursts that suggests you are not highly important in the internal pecking order Doritos holds you on. "I came over. I cancelled on three other people for this!" Doritos is jumping on the sofa like a puppy, but Doritos is the size of a man. "Take! Me! Out! For! Your! Birth! Day!"
Or: Reese's Pieces is extremely concerned about your mental health. "It's OK to talk," Reese’s Pieces is saying. "It’s… good to talk." Reese's Pieces has its legs tucked up underneath itself and has made you both camomile tea (you do not like camomile tea – it sort of tastes like someone imagined honey after a long time away from it – but you have to drink it anyway, because it was made for you). "Hey," Reese's Pieces says, in that sort of semi-cloying actually-quite-patronising voice, grabbing a small soft piece of your sleeve and rubbing it between its fingers. "Is everything OK?"
The thing is: yes, everything is OK. You’ve been fine lately, you thought. Actually, everything has been going quite well. You started going to the gym and you did Coach to 5K and you’re feeling good about it all. You feel strong and supple within the confines of your body. The clocks went forward and the extra hours of sunlight are bringing out the sunnier sides of your disposition. You stopped watching all that porn. You feel good, actively, and not good within the context of your usual bad, but actual capital-G Good, and now Reese’s Pieces is here, giving you those puppy eyebrows and telling you to "talk to them". I’m fine, Reese’s Pieces! Fuck off!
Or: ah, god, the party ended hours ago, but Ribena is still here, on your sofa, talking about how under-appreciated they are at work. "The thing is, right—" Ribena is saying, and Ribena has absolutely hoovered up the lines, even though you bought the bag, so actually you are really not awake enough for this and quite urgently need your bed, but Ribena isn’t going anywhere because it's on one. "Thing is, yeah: I’m really good at my job." You don’t know what Ribena does day-to-day, but you're pretty sure it’s something to do with being a British blackcurrant-derived lunchbox-sized carton-packed drink for children. "And nobody recognises that? Like: I’m really, really good at my job." They pause for a second. "Can you name a better fruit-flavoured, high-sugar drink in the UK than me right now?" Don’t say Vimto. Don’t say Vimto. Don’t say Vimto, or you’ll be here all night. "No," you say, thinking the word, purple and huge, "V I M T O". "Right, exactly," Ribena says. "Nobody ever appreciates how, like, good it is to be good at your job? Nobody ever says: hey, well done to you, right, when good is just the standard?"
Ribena rubs a finger over the back of the copy of Tomb Raider you started doing lines off and offers the outstretched pad of their digit to you. "Do you mind if I—?" Gum the coke, Ribena. Gum the coke and get a fucking Uber away from my house.
Sad to announce that brands are our friends now, constantly and always, and we have all just accepted this as being Good. And I suppose it makes a grim sort of sense: making friends as an adult is quite hard. Maintaining friendships as an adult is a near full-time job (this is why your friends sheer off when they move towns or get boyfriends or girlfriends, or get a dog, or have a kid: the time spent juggling the sheer logistic of knowing you goes out of the window when they have something or someone better to do).
You had your groups of friends, didn't you – your Back Home Mates and your Uni Buddies and those little Work Friends you made – but then you had that one birthday party where all the disparate groups finally met and collided, and something felt wrong about it, somehow, wrong and uncomfortable. Think how many times you’ve spent gravely sitting in a pub staring at your third pint of the night and thinking, desperately, about something to say to the person opposite. Think of the times you have strung along the same "no we should definitely meet up!" email chain with someone you have no intention of really ever meeting up with again. Recall the clunk of dread you got when that WhatsApp notification from the mate you had two jobs ago whistled through.
Surely it is easier to just tweet the word "Pret" and wait for any one of the thousands of people Pret hires to respond to the word "Pret" to respond to the word "Pret", and let them go through the shapes and motions of friendship with you instead. "Sorry to hear your coconut mocha wasn’t up to our usual standard, Joel!" they say, cheerfully, don’t they. "DM us to talk more! – Jess." I will DM you, Jess from Pret. You are my friend now because you are paid to be.
And so we find ourselves at the nadir of brand banter, which is April Fool’s Day (today). I’ve written at length before about how much I hate the occasion – the try hardism, the sheer empty unfunniness of it, the very truly pathetic idea that so many people at so many ad agencies will have had to sign such tame jokes off, projected large on a blank wall and thumbsed up by an account manager – but this year it’s morphed to something more, and that is: the worst symptom of a cultural disease we let spread. At some point a few years ago we all thought it'd be fun to have brands be our mates, and now here they are, outside our door, shouting up through our window while we’re lying in the dark very still on a hangover, trying desperately to make us look at them while they deliver the world's worst joke.
"HEY! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" British Transport Police is saying, desperately, while the curtains softly waft at your window. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” You get up. You put jogging bottoms on. You head to the window but do not make it clear you are stood there. “Hey!” British Transport Police says, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” You really thought they had gone. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Finally, you look at them. "You’re not allowed smelly food on trains now!" Thanks a lot, British Transport Police. Now fuck off and bother someone else.
I blame Tesco Mobile for this, and everything. I blame Tesco Mobile for everything. I want to be clear about this: I think it is possible to pinpoint the exact moment culture started to slide into the abyss, and it was the 2013 thread between Tesco Mobile, Dairy Milk, Jaffa Cakes and Tetley Tea that Buzzfeed described as "the best Twitter conversation you will read today".
We allowed this to happen at the time.
"'Ke$ha sang 'party don't start til we open a tin'" – we let Cadbury UK say that.
"[S]low down man, you’re cray cray" – Tesco Mobile, 2013.
Recall that this pre-dated Trump. Recall that this happened before Brexit did. Did we, imperceptibly, realise the spiralling downfall we were in and vote against ourselves to make it stop? Did Jaffa Cakes doing patter with Phileas Fogg make us so mad we started to hurt ourselves? I think that possibly it did. Oh god, don’t look now, but Butterkist popcorn is outside your house in their car, waving. Ah, they’re flashing the— they’re flashing the lights at you. Your phone's ringing. They’ve definitely seen you. You can’t just lurk very still behind the net curtains. "See you in there, mate!" Butterkist popcorn just text you. "Come out and say hi!"
We live in a world of horror, and brands becoming our friends is just one more shadow in the cupboard, one more squeaking sound on the stairs. April Fools Day is a sort of Halloween of bad banter. Butterkist’s engine is still running. "I’m just driving to Shropshire, don’t know why," Butterkist says. "Knew you weren’t doing anything today because you cancelled on Penguin Biscuits. Do you want to come for an exceptionally long drive?" Can you put trousers on, at least, grab a shower before you go? "No! We’re already late. Get in!" Can you control the music, at least? You have a Spotify playlist. "No! I’ve not got an AUX cord. Still got all my old tapes."
Just you, Butterkist popcorn, a four-hour each-way drive and a fraying old version of The Joshua Tree. We should be afraid of how much worse it can possibly become.