Ah, April Fools’… love it or hate it, there’s no denying it is a pretty big day in the world of marketing. A well-executed prank can really make a brand stand out and be memorable, especially in this day and age where everything can be shared with hundreds of friends and followers by simply clicking a button. But even prior to the days of social media, plenty of brands still fooled, delighted and sometimes enraged consumers with some whopping pranks. Over 89 million people worldwide play an April Fools’ joke each year, so it’s understandable that companies want to join in on all the fun. So today we’re looking back and getting all misty eyed about some of the best and most memorable pranks ever pulled by brands in honour of this mischievous holiday.
Guinness Mean Time
Starting with a classic, let’s rewind all the way back to yesteryear…or rather, 1998. We’ve talked about the marketing genius behind Guinness before, but on this occasion they really pushed the boat out. On the 30th March, Guinness issued an embargoed press release announcing they would be the official sponsors of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, meaning Greenwich Mean Time would be renamed Guinness Mean Time. The release also stated that a Guinness bar would open in the astronomy dome, and the traditional Observatory method of counting seconds in ‘pips’ would now be counted in ‘pint drips’. Although the embargo on the press release meant this ‘news’ couldn’t be reported by the press until the 1st April, the Financial Times broke the embargo a day early out of pure outrage. It was clear from their article that they had not realised it was a joke, claiming Guinness had set “a brash tone for the millennium” with the sponsorship. Once the broadsheet realised it was in fact a prank, they printed a rather haughty retraction…oops!
It seems like Pimm’s took a leaf out of Guinness’ book on April 1st last year, announcing a partnership with an even more iconic British landmark - the Elizabeth Tower, or as it’s more commonly known, Big Ben. Famous for their “It’s Pimm’s o’clock” slogan, the drinks company released a video to their social channels apparently outlining their “landmark deal to display their logo on Big Ben” in the style of a breaking news report. They even went as far as to enlist veteran newscaster Peter Sissons to help make the spoof look as believable as possible! A fair few customers and news sites were confused to say the least by the ‘news’, but thankfully the Financial Times kept quiet on this one. The prank was well-received, and served as a fun reminder that summer, a.k.a. Pimm’s o’clock, was just around the corner.
Expedia Space - Flights to Mars
On the 1st April 2009, travel company Expedia offered some extra-cheap flights on their website. Nothing funny about that, right? Well, except for the fact that these $99 flights weren’t to Paris or New York, they were to Mars. Complete with a very polished and believable campaign video, as well as a special webpage for the occasion (which, by the way, is still live), it’s easy to see why this prank is so memorable. Even though (hopefully) not many people actually believed they would be able to holiday on Mars thanks to Expedia, it still highlighted a playful side to the brand that many customers hadn’t seen before, and is still one of the most memorable April Fool’s campaigns out there.
Burger King - The Left-Handed Whopper
Another whopping April Fool’s Day prank, once again from 1998, was Burger King’s effort, which caused widespread confusion and curiosity from thousands of hungry customers. The fast food giant took out a full page advertisement in USA Today on 1st April 1998, announcing the launch of the ‘Left-Handed Whopper’. The new burger supposedly contained exactly the same ingredients as the original whopper, but with all the condiments rotated 180 degrees and the ingredients realigned, “favouring left-handed eating technique” and “allowing left-handers to have it their way”. The following day Burger King issued a follow-up statement revealing that (of course) the Left-Handed Whopper was a hoax, but that thousands of confused and disappointed customers had nonetheless gone to Burger King to ask for the new burger. Apparently some disgruntled customers even requested their own ‘right handed’ version! Although this mischievous prank obviously caused some chaos in the fast food world, it definitely worked, and is remembered as a pinnacle of April Fools’ marketing.
The Taco Liberty Bell
The quintessential April Fools’ Day prank from any brand, and arguably once of the best hoaxes of all time, however, has to be the Taco Liberty Bell. On 1st April 1996, Taco Bell took out a full page advertisement in a number of major US newspapers, with the heading “Taco Bell Buys The Liberty Bell”, resulting in national uproar. The Liberty Bell, a historic and iconic symbol of American history and patriotism, was pictured in the ad, along with a statement claiming the bell would be renamed the “Taco Liberty Bell” as a result of the purchase, which was supposedly “an effort to help the national debt”. The same morning, the National Park Service (which looks after the bell) was inundated with furious calls from thousands of Americans, including two US senators, and had to call a press conference to assure irate Americans that the bell was not in fact for sale.
Some journalists and public figures argued the joke was in poor taste, condemning it as “an affront to generations of proud Americans who have fought and died for this country’s freedom” (Washington Post). Taco Bell responded to the criticism by donating $50,000 towards the upkeep of the Liberty Bell, a small fraction of the estimated $25 million of free publicity that the incident stirred up for the Tex-Mex food chain.
It’s clear that April Fools’ Day is no joke when it comes to marketing - some brands have really shaken things up with their challenging campaigns and brilliant pranks over the years. Although sometimes such disruptive and playful marketing has been known to ruffle a few feathers, it’s clear the benefits outweigh the losses. A well-executed April Fools’ prank can really raise a company’s status and exponentially increase brand awareness, as well as show a new, more human side to even the most corporate of big names. Just remember to keep an eye out for any unusual announcements from brands this Saturday, and don’t believe everything you see or read...it could be another iconic prank!