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Brands, Please Don't Do April Fools' Gags

(Image: Getty)

April 1 is coming up, and that means too many brands doing stupid stuff on the internet.

Comedy is hard. It’s an actual skill. But one day a year, every brand’s marketing department suddenly think they’re jokesters. This ends up having predictable results. But while the whole principle of online April Fools used to be dumb and harmless, now it really needs to end.

The concept of the “brand April Fools’ gag” has been going on for decades. Google has been doing it for 20 years. Some of them have been witty! The best Google gags have either played on knowledge of Google’s controversies and weaknesses (like when it claimed Analytics was “going back to only measuring hits”), or have just been joyous little Easter eggs on the web, like when you could play Pac-Man through Google Maps.

We used to do April Fools’ stories, too. They were bad. I don’t understand the 2009 “Netbook Powers Teleportation” joke at all, and I work here. (Tangent: How cute were 2005 websites? I miss our 2005 website.)

Most brands skipped April Fools’ Day in 2020 because of the pandemic. We are still in the pandemic, but that’s not really why April Fools needs to end. It needs to end because the past five years have completely destroyed consensus reality on the internet. You can’t have a good laugh about what is unreal without a general agreement on what is real.

I do remember enjoying April Fools’ gags. That was back before Facebook, YouTube, and other algorithmic platforms started pushing misinformation quite so heavily at us, and it was before the Macedonian troll farms poured out such a massive quantity of nonsense. April Fools’ jokes shined more as gems of falsehood on landscapes of truth, back when we had less of an embarrassment of riches in terms of real-appearing fake articles.

It’s hard to remember now, but the proliferation of “fake news” that seemed real on the internet, and the use of “fake news” as a political sword and shield, only goes back to 2016 or so. While the idea of politics existing outside a “reality-based community” was coined in 2004, the idea that much of the general big-brand and news content on the web is fake has only really entered the mainstream discourse over the past five years, heavily promoted by former President Trump.

It doesn’t help that most brand April Fools’ Day jokes, unlike Google’s, are bad and stupid. Volkswagen just got in trouble for a prank that said it was changing its name to “Voltswagen” as a publicity stunt for its electric cars, echoing the really dumb “International House of Breakfast” IHOP marketing campaign from mid-2018. Given that Volkswagen is also well-known for lying about things, and the fact that the “news” was released three days before April 1, its prank went over about as well as a purposefully disabled catalytic converter.

April Fools relies on most things being true. You see an April Fools’ gag, you believe it, you are momentarily disappointed or annoyed when you realize it was a gag, but it doesn’t hurt that much because on the 364 other days a year, most things are true.

That’s not the case on the internet anymore. Let’s leave the satire to the satirists and the comedy to the comedians. When you have fake news 365 days a year, April Fools is just amateur hour.

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