April Fools' Day used to be a fairly innocuous tradition that involved newspapers publishing one silly story somewhere near the bottom of the page in the "In Brief" section. Over the last few years, though, a blend of social media, viral culture, and Photoshop have swung April Fools' Day into more calculated territory, as global brands have attempted to hijack the banterwagon and transform it into dollar dollar bills.
Let's consider a selection of last year's branded pranks: celebrity boot company Hunter promoted a range of tiny wellies for dogs, Marmite announced a transparent spread named "Marmite Clear," ASOS pioneered a clip-on man bun, and Pizza Hut launched a Scratch-n-Sniff menu. None of the items were actually sold, but each had a different kind of financial value of another kind: making these brands seem fun.
We asked an expert in the form of Alex Holder, one half of advertising creative duo Oli and Alex, the award-winning executive creative directors and partners at ad agency Anomaly. Here's what she told us.
VICE: How do April Fools' Day stunts by brands work? Who makes this stuff up?
Alex: I've worked in advertising agencies for years, and I've seen many April Fools' Day briefs come to the agency. I guess the client says, "Hey, we need to be funny and culturally relevant on April 1, let's brief the agency!" Then the agency gets the brief, and everyone in the creative department gets excited because they're being asked to tell a joke rather than just sell a car.
What happens next? How do you come up with ideas?
Like any brief, creatives, normally in teams of two, write up a load of ideas. It's as clichéd as you'd imagine: notepad, pen, sit in front of a slightly snazzy mural in the corner of an open plan office in Soho. There'll be lots of ideas suggested, some completely missing the mark and some that could be lol. They'll be a big creative review, which is essentially a load of people sitting around a boardroom table reading out ideas to one another and trying to get a laugh out of the group. They'll be some decision-maker in the room, a creative director, and the best ideas will be polished, popped into a Keynote, and presented to the client. Hopefully the client likes one of the ideas and that gets made.
Why do you think April Fools' Day has become so important to brands?
Because it's a chance for them to prove to their customers that they can be funny and human. It's also the only time of a year some brands feel safe telling a joke. How sad is that? Waiting all year to be funny? It's like only telling your husband you love him on Valentine's Day.
Imagine the human that only tells a joke once a year. On April Fools' Day. No one would be friends with them. It's a shame some brands haven't realized that people want them to be constantly less uptight and corporate.
What's the worst attempt at a stunt by a brand that you've seen?
It's the ones where a lot of money and time has been spent on a very weak gag. There's a ridiculous myth in advertising that an ad only has to be "quite" funny. A mobile phone company pretending that you can use its phone to slice vegetables, or an ice-cream company saying that it's created new anti-freeze brain helmets, can't be the best use of a chance to make a load of people laugh. Even the best gags, even if they're made by a person, if they're made on April Fools' Day, it has to be fucking good for you to laugh.
And what about the best?
I love that Google often use April Fools' Day to release new technology. Not a joke, but a knowing nod to the day. Google is always in on the joke—I like that. The company feels like the smart person in the room. It's old, but the BBC's 2008 iPlayer advert Penguins [in which penguins were seen flying]... It was at a time when we were still charmed by big media trying to pull off a gag. Also it was like grandpa telling a sweet joke—and no one can begrudge that.
In a world of satire, do you think we're now post-prank? Have we become too wise to be punked by brands?
No, but just choosing one for April Fools' Day is a bit of an eye-roll because everyone is doing it, like, Oh gosh, what's your April Fools' joke? Why do brands have to be stuffy, awkward, and boring most of the time and then once a year make a little weak gag? When a brand makes an April Fools' joke, it's like it's saying, "l know the rest of the year l'm a bore, but hey, l can let my hair down when l want to."
Follow Bryony on Twitter.