More Fool You: Why I'm Over Being Gaslighted By Brands on April Fools' Day
Forget Cannes, Christmas or the Super Bowl, if you really want to challenge your brand building nouse or the strength of your creative output April Fools' Day is the real test. Obvious jokes shoe-horned into rigid brand parameters can be clunky and try-hard if the writing isn’t razor-sharp. But worse still are the pranks that people actually fall for. If the general public can believe that your brand could do something dumb or pointlessly buzzword-driven as part of its legitimate business plan… well it doesn’t look great for your brand.
This year the task of separating the jokes from the genuine press releases has been, at times, pretty tiresome. Ideas which two weeks ago could have easily graced the stage at the SXSW hypetrain are now considered moron bait. Amazon Dash is the perfect example – product-sponsored, Wi-Fi enabled buttons that allow users to re-order essentials easily. A tentative tippytoe into the Internet of Things… and a massive hoax. This is from the company that spends half its time bigging up drones as a mainstream delivery system. And yet believing in Wi-Fi buttons is lol-worthy idiocy. K.
I’ve written before about how advertising and marketing’s buzzword obsession is distorting our sense of reality but now the media (as a whole) is just plain gaslighting us. (The term refers to a form of mental abuse whereby the victim is made to doubt their perception of reality and inspired by the 1944 thriller Gas Light… and, really, if I want to feel like Ingrid Bergman I’ll have a holiday in Casablanca.) Usually we're pushed to embrace the latest innovation by our fears of irrelevance (something that's particularly acute among ad industry professionals). We’re asked to believe the unbelievable every single day – if you want to be part of the future it’s the price of admission. And then April 1 rolls around, and the joke’s on you. ‘You actually believed this was a real thing? Cuh, what a dumb-ass.’
I spent much of yesterday trying to figure out which news stories were real and which were not. It says a lot about the state of the world when navigating the line between reality and fantasy has become a stressful, unsettling exercise. Is Britain’s loveable thicko-for-hire and reality star Joey Essex really interviewing political leaders (including Prime Minister David Cameron) ahead of the UK election? Could be fake… could be exactly the sort of shite I’ve come to expect of this country and its politicians. Case in point, the Independent’s April Fool’s Day joke is a meta round up of prank stories on other news sites – and the big reveal is that they’re all genuine stories. In the words of teenage girls the world over: ‘I just can’t even’.
I’m experiencing some pretty intense nostalgia for the olden days, when April Fool’s Day pranks were about convincing the credulous with really outlandish lies (well, that and putting cling film on toilet seats). In 1957, the BBC convinced a nation that spaghetti grew on trees. In 1998, Burger King advertised the left-handed Whopper. Sometime in the late ‘80s or very early ‘90s, a Saturday morning kids’ show convinced me that there was a special breed of bunny that hatched from eggs (I forget the exact year. What I do remember is the disgusted look on my parents’ faces as they realised they’d spawned a small idiot.)
As technology shrinks the gap between imagination and reality, so the elaborate fantasy of April 1st has become dulled. For me, the joy of classic pranks is the sheer ingenuity that went into explaining and justifying the most ridiculous claims – whether it was astronomer Patrick Moore detailing the ‘Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effects’ that would cause weightlessness on Earth at 9.47 am, April 1st 1976 or Taco Bell earnestly explaining the economics behind their decision to buy the Liberty Bell in 1996. I grew up in a household for which every day was April Fool’s Day (thanks Mum, love you, therapy bill’s in the post) and so ‘pointless consumer brand introduces new pointless consumer product… PSYCHE! NOT REALLY!’ doesn’t really cut it with me. If anything it's just unambitious.
Maybe it’s just become too easy to fake stuff these days. We’re bombarded with unreal Photoshopped images every day of our lives. I see more unrealistically flawless skin and chiselled cheek bones on my morning commute than Leatherface has in his entire workshop. The media landscape is an exercise in mass delusion as it is, so excuse me for failing to see the comedy genius in your press release and quickly knocked-together jpeg. When, in 1978, Australian entrepreneur managed to convince the country that he’d floated an iceberg from the Antarctic to Sydney harbour he really had to put a bit of effort into building the beast from plastic sheeting and shaving foam. Now that’s a prank.
I can’t have been the only one who registered no emotional reaction to Domino’s driverless van stunt, for example. Yes it would be impractical. Yes it’s pretty unlikely. But when the likes of Google and Amazon are already carrying out (well publicised) R&D in the area, it’s not particularly ‘out there’ as fibs go. Where's the humour in getting someone to believe something that's going to be real in five years or so anyway?
That’s not to say I haven’t managed a couple of chuckles at some of the branded efforts that I’ve seen over the last day or two. If we already expect to be pranked, the joke’s no longer in the surprise but the silliness. The dog perfume skit from Geoffrey Roche is spot on – because dogs are stinky cretins that love to roll around in dead animal funk. Hailo’s new piggyback ride service also gave rise to an unladylike snort.
Mostly, though, April Fools’ Day fever has left me kind of cold. Super Bowl, Christmas, Halloween are all about coming together for a shared experience – I get why advertisers want (and need) to get stuck in there. April 1st, though, is all about delicious, warm glow of schadenfreude. Brands want to get involved but they can’t be seen to be laughing at others’ expense. So… if you’re not going to get nasty or elaborate, why not just sit this one out? I know advertising is all about emotional impact, but if these emotions are ‘bored’ and ‘the vague feeling you might be being fucked with’, is it really worth it?