Brands pulling April Fools' Day pranks can fall flat. Just ask Volkswagen and Google.
April Fools' Day seems like the perfect time for pranks. But what starts out as a joke can become no laughing matter.
Big name brands and companies often feel compelled to make their own mark on the foolish holiday. But there have been instances where April Fools' fakeries have flopped – or worse, backfired.
April Fools' Day can give companies and brands an "opportunity to connect with their customers through humor – a great way to show your brand’s personality and fun side. And if done well, it can create a very memorable moment for the brand," Rebecca Rosborough, global chief marketing officer for online brand management platform Frontify, told USA TODAY.
"However it is often hard to do it in a way that will resonate with everyone and not offend anyone," she said.
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A success story from last year, Rosborough said, was 7-Eleven's introduction of the Tiny Gulp, a serving of "just 0.7 ounces, it's the perfect little sip," the company said on social media. "While the bit was clearly just for fun, it served to reinforce one of the brand’s iconic offerings," the Big Gulp, Rosborough said.
Not all April Fools' go so well. Here's a few examples.
Elon Musk: Telsa goes bankrupt
On April 1, 2018, Elon Musk tweeted about Tesla going bankrupt. "This prank backfired immediately, causing the stock to drop 7%," Rosborough said. "And although he tried to inject humor in the way he phrased it, his 'Easter Eggs' pun wildly misfired."
Tesla Goes Bankrupt
Palo Alto, California, April 1, 2018 -- Despite intense efforts to raise money, including a last-ditch mass sale of Easter Eggs, we are sad to report that Tesla has gone completely and totally bankrupt. So bankrupt, you can't believe it.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 1, 2018
Volkswagen gets a new name – not
Two years ago, ahead of April Fools' Day, German automaker Volkswagen published on its website what was thought to be a draft press release about plans to change the name of its American division to "Voltswagen," the swapping out of the "k" for a "t" as a commitment to electric vehicles.
While some Volkswagen officials in Germany were telling The Wall Street Journal the announcement was an early April Fools' Day joke, other officials maintained the plan's veracity. After the company's stock began to rise, and VW's communications teams and journalists wasted a lot of time, the company confessed the whole thing really was a joke.
Volkswagen's prank is an example of one that went too far, said Columbia Business School professor and corporate strategy expert Rita McGrath, who talked to USA TODAY in 2022 for a story about April Fools' pranks. "(It) was a mistake," she said.
The Taco Liberty Bell: April Fools' prank rang true, for awhile
Taco Bell cooked up an April Fools' surprise in 1996 running full-page advertisements in The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers including The New York Times and USA TODAY about its purchase of the Liberty Bell – and its renaming to "the Taco Liberty Bell" – to "help the national debt."
Members of Congress called the National Park Service to confirm the deal was not real, The Washington Post reported. The park service held an impromptu press conference to deny the deal, too. After Taco Bell admitted the whole thing was a hoax, the company offered to donate $50,000 towards preservation of the bell.
The hijinks paid off. The free publicity generated by the incident was worth $25 million in advertising and sales at Taco Bell increased by $500,000 and $600,000, on April 1 and April 2, compared to the prior week, according to the Chicago Tribune, which also ran the ad.
Google: April Fools' Day email 'updates'
Historically, Google has been an active participant in April Fools' pranks, but it hasn't launched any since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tech news site 9to5Google noted.
The company may have wished it hadn't introduced a new Gmail feature called the Mic Drop in 2016. The feature made "it easier to have the last word on any email," Google said, by adding a GIF of a yellow animated minion (from the animated "Despicable Me" and "Minion" movies) dropping a microphone.
But a bug added the Mic Drop to many emails unintentionally and it had to be turned off. "We love April Fools jokes at Google, and we regret that this joke missed the mark and disappointed you," the company said at the time.
Richard Branson's UFO landed ... with a thud for police
The billionaire and founder of The Virgin Group, who in 2021 got to travel into space, has enjoyed April Fools' pranks for years, too. His most famous one: the 1989 flying of a "UFO," actually a hot air balloon with flashing lights, over London.
Police were mobilized and the army had been alerted, Branson said in a blog post from 2021. When it landed – the day before April Fools' Day because of weather, The Christian Science Monitor reported – a door opened and someone wearing an E.T. costume walked out. "The police surrounded us and then sent one lone policeman with his truncheon across the field to greet the alien," Branson wrote.
Initially, "the police didn’t see the funny side of it and threatened to arrest us for wasting their time," Branson wrote. "Thankfully, they soon joined in the fun and left with smiles on their faces."
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: April Fools' Day pranks from Google, Taco Bell, Volkswagen fell flat