Today is April 1st, one of the worst days on the internet every year. For the rest of the day, the internet will be filled with an unending parade of dumb PR stunts, fake products, lie-filled press releases, and just plain unfunny jokes that have been filtered through layers and layers of corporate branding teams as to be unrecognizable as humor by normal humans.
Last year, the holiday fell at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; faced with the unspeakable human tragedy that was unfolding on a daily basis, most companies elected to opt out of the holiday. Some, like Google, have wisely chosen to once again pull their April Fools’ gags in light of the current state of the world.
And yet, April 1st has rolled around once again, and like villainous treasure hunters in an Indiana Jones movie, it seems brands just can’t stop opening the box of forbidden knowledge and getting their faces melted off.
The latest example of this cautionary tale is Volkswagen, which, earlier this week, messed up so spectacularly with a fake rebranding that created a backlash so severe that I truly hope that it ends the practice forever.
As it stands, there are only four options for a brand in 2021 pulling this nonsense:
- Don’t do an April Fools’ joke. Put the time and energy into doing something productive that will materially benefit the world (or, less idealistically, your business) instead. Or just don’t do anything. Abstaining entirely would still be a net positive over the drain of resources and mental energy.
- Do an April Fools’ “joke” but actually follow through on your stunt. This is arguably not a prank, since you’ve actually created a video game skin or a real product that people can buy — but it doesn’t really hurt anyone.
- Do an April Fools’ joke but be extremely clear from the start that this is a dumb joke and you have no intention of doing the thing that you are “humorously” pretending to do. Does this defeat the purpose of doing an April Fools’ joke because you’re not “fooling” anyone anymore? Absolutely. (Please see my first two points.)
- Lie to your customers, successfully tricking them into believing you are making some product, rebranding, or service you are not. By doing so, you will almost certainly annoy everyone once your deceit is made plain for the extremely small gain of pointless PR. The aphorism goes that there is no such thing as bad publicity; the seemingly endless line of companies willing to make fools out of themselves has proven this false time and time again.
In a more logical world, brand managers and social media strategists the world over would simply take the day off, realizing there’s simply no benefit in risking your customers’ ire (or, in some cases, your entire good name) to celebrate a toxic internet holiday that was never much fun to begin with. Unfortunately, today — as happens every year — the brands will almost certainly refuse to learn.