How brands should approach April Fools' Day stunts in year two of pandemic
Is America ready for brand pranks and jokes despite the ongoing pandemic this April Fools’ Day?
Marketing experts say to approach with caution—but bring on the parodies, slapstick and whoopee cushions as audiences continue to search for coping mechanisms and ways to de-stress.
Last year, brands’ traditional April Fools’ Day campaigns were nearly non-existent as marketers treaded lightly with their messaging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As coronavirus cases and deaths climbed, the notion that companies would step away from charitable or frontline support efforts to give away fake products, misdirect consumers or pull gags felt wrong and irresponsible. Brands that typically create for the holiday—Google, Honda, Shutterstock, SodaStream—skipped the day altogether. T-Mobile went so far as to launch a campaign called “#GiveThanksNotPranks,” telling followers it would donate $1 to Buys & Girls Clubs for every tweet with the hashtag.
With 27% of the U.S. population now vaccinated and spring bringing confidence that a slow, but steady return to pre-pandemic life is underway, at least as far as consumer spending goes, industry experts say the landscape has changed dramatically since this time last year. One factor that could temper optimism is a new wave of inflections across Europe that could foreshadow future lockdowns in the states. Still, experts believe consumers could benefit from some April Fools’ Day campaigns, although ones that are less deceiving or purposefully misleading than in years past.
“April 1, 2021 is shaping up as very different from April 1, 2020,” says Matt Creamer, co-head of creative at Forsman & Bodenfors New York, who’s worked on his fair share of April Fools’ Day campaigns for brands like Seagrams and is in the process of discussing this year’s work with a client.
“A year ago, there was incredible confusion around the pandemic sweeping the world. In the heat of that terrible moment, people didn't have time for pranks or tricks and brands were right to avoid adding any additional confusion to a very chaotic environment,” says Creamer. “This year is different; while we have a long way to go, there isn't the same cloud of confusion hanging over the world. We know what we have to do. That said, as always, brands need to be sensitive, but there is more room to explore humor, if it's done tastefully, carefully, and clearly.”
Professionals warn that not all comedic relief is appropriate. No one wants another Burger King fiasco where a swing at shock value missed the mark on International Women’s Day.
Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at brand and design consultancy Landor & Fitch, says most people are craving a sense of normalcy, but still expect brands to be sensitive to the times we’re living in.
“Pranks do need to be different than in years past,” she says. “Brands should not be out there trying any ploy or stunt in a shameless bid for publicity. That won’t go down well. But if brands use the day to put something out there that might be helpful to people, and on top of that make them smile, then go for it. To be relevant, brands must be sensitive to what is going on around them, culturally, societally, medically, and adapt to prevailing conditions.”
For that reason, consumers can expect to see April Fools’ Day campaigns that somehow resonate with the challenging times everyone is going through or reference fun pandemic-driven trends. Nic Climer, executive creative director at agency Rapp, points to one of the few successful April Fools’ Day campaigns last year: Virgin Australia offering up its jet toilet paper supply to those in need with the run on toilet paper.
Creative platform Shutterstock, which usually takes part in April Fools’ Day but stayed on the sidelines last year, says it’s back in the fray this year, tapping into the pet craze the pandemic stirred up with a series of blogs and images featuring cat fashions across social media, as well as publishing a blog about how to clean camera lenses in outer space, written in the Star Trek language Klington. “Many of us are eager for a moment of levity in what has been a heavy time,” says Jennifer Braunschweiger, senior director of content marketing at Shutterstock.
Laughs are back
Humor has steadily trickled back into brand campaigns through the year, becoming one of the many trends of messaging aiming to induce laughter and some kind of momentarily stress-relief, whatever might bring smiles to people’s faces. Light comedy in ads were also an audience favorite among this year’s Super Bowl commercials. Around 82% of people say humor helps them cope in tough times, according to a survey of around 500 adults by messaging service Holler and market research platform Suzy in May 2020.
“Brands that have playful and fun communities of fans have already engaged in this type of light-hearted content in recent months,” says Kristin Maverick, VP of social strategy at agency 360i. “Their fans have welcomed the ‘break,’ and will be more ready for something like that this year.” Still, the agency is treading lightly. “We’re avoiding April Fools content around the pandemic itself, or incorporating activities like travel that the CDC continues to discourage,” Maverick says. “Instead we’re going for more fun, light-hearted content.”
What brands should absolutely steer clear of is delivering any misinformation, especially having to do with the pandemic, says several experts. “I don't want to see anything that makes the public think there's a shortage of vaccines or an abundance. I don't want to see anything that causes a stampede on vaccination sites,” says Barry Lowenthal, chief executive officer at media planning and buying agency Media Kitchen.
Whoopee cushions and fake baby food
Among the brands playing into some of the more lighthearted moments brought by the pandemic is organic baby food brand Little Spoon. Working with Agency Dialogue New York, the brand is recreating some of the food crazes from across the internet during the pandemic—meals that most people didn’t have time to make—for a faux line of baby foods with outlandish flavors. One of the more popular games of the pandemic—Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing”—announced it would add whoopee cushions to the game for virtual pranks. Kraft Heinz’s Jell-O April Fools’ Day work from Leo Burnett, which came out this week, ties into today’s work-from-home culture and what shows people are tuning into as they stay confined to their living rooms. The brand is sending kits to people to recreate the prank from “The Office” where Dwight’s stapler is stuck in Jello-O.
“The idea really was born from this perfect synergy of new cultural behaviors that we noticed were happening,” says Nicole Kulwicki, general manager, easy indulgent desserts at Kraft Heinz. “People miss being in the office with their coworkers. They miss that natural camaraderie that you just can’t replicate over video calls, so they have been turning to humorous and nostalgic content.”
Christine Alemany, chief executive officer at branding and marketing firm TBGA has some other ideas: Why not a service to turn crowded homes into day spas, or offer the “unZoom experience?" she says.