Today, though, the brands are mostly quiet. Like so many of our other creature comforts, from sports to concerts, they’ve taken the year off amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s probably for the best.
“It would just be seen as just so tone-deaf with people dying, and we're not even at the peak yet,” said Donna Hoffman, a marketing professor at George Washington University.
During the past decade or so, on this day “brands have really tried to see how clever they could be, how funny they could be,” Hoffman said. And it works well enough. “I think there is a little bit of a bump for brands that do these clever things, and they get written about.”
Many large brands, including Google, the king of April Fools’, opted out of this year’s shenanigans. Last April 1, T-Mobile announced it would (re-)introduce the world to phone booths, but this year it launched a #GiveThanksNotPranks campaign on social media, pledging to donate a buck for every “gratitude story posted on Twitter” with that hashtag (up to $200,000).
The Australian arm of Virgin, another frequent participant, announced it was also taking the day off. “We know that you are used to being fooled by us on April Fools’ Day, but we think that 2020 has pranked us enough already,” the company’s product and consumer general manager Sarah Adam said in an Instagram video — and included plans to donate toilet paper rolls from more than 100 of its grounded aircraft to those in need.
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2020, you’ve fooled all of us, so this #AprilFoolsDay we’re turning our prank into a reality. We're collecting all of the unused toilet paper from our grounded aircraft which we’ll donate to those in need. For every toilet roll collected, @kleenexaunz will match the donation, so together we’ve got your back(side) 😉
Still, some organizations carried on. Animal rights advocacy group In Defense of Animals announced that Snoop Dogg had changed his name to Snoop Frogg (the real Snoop has a long history of name-changing) to promote its (real) campaign Too Cruel for School, which urges schools to use SynFrog, a realistic, synthetic frog, for dissection in science classes, instead of real amphibians.
“We wanted to put a smile on people’s face, but we do have a really serious issue and message to share with people here,” said the organization’s campaigns director, Matthew Hamity, who added that one reason IDA went through with the campaign was the suspected connection between covid-19 and the illegal trafficking of pangolins and bats, which has raised concerns among some animal advocates.
Others also embraced a bit of silliness. KnowYourMeme became KnowYourPickle, even turning your cursor into a pickled cucumber. The GIF database Giphy released some humorous backgrounds for use on the hot video chatting app Zoom. Online arts magazine Hyperallergic published some goofy stories, such as “Amid Global Crisis, Top Galleries Announce Unspecified Donations to Undisclosed Charities.” And Chuck D revealed that Public Enemy never actually fired Flava Flav, despite the group saying so in a statement last month.
One prank backfired majestically in the most predictable of ways. Kim Jaejoong of K-pop group JYJ announced to his million-plus fans that he tested positive for the virus, which first garnered an outpouring of support — then swells of outrage. He later claimed the gag was to raise awareness.
Typically, April Fools’ is one among many spring festivals that celebrate “the ability to be social again” after our winter indoor hibernation, said Simon Bronner, a folklorist and dean of the College of General Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “and one of the ways to be social is through humor.”
Those festivals often tout the creation of new life. Advertisers are “tapping in or linking up people to this sense of, ‘It’s spring, so therefore you should be getting something new,’" Bronner said. “In consumer theory, when do people replace what they have when there’s this sense of permanence to their objects? Spring is a big time to do that.”
For the brands that trumpeted their goodwill instead — does it actually help their end goals of making money when the economy reopens? Color Hoffman skeptical. “There’s this fine line between trying to cash in and showing true compassion,” she said. “How to know what side of the line you’re on has to be driven by authenticity.”