When I temped at Sun Microsystems in 1988, I worked as a lowly records clerk in the same building as CEO Scott McNealy. April Fools’ Day was always a big holiday at Sun. In fact that year, McNealy’s and another executive’s office were transformed to a complete one-hole, par four golf course, replete with a tee area, sand traps, water hazard with cherub fountain, golf carts, ball washer and bench—but not too many people knew about it outside the company since it was before the explosion of the Internet. If that were today, you can bet there would be YouTube videos gone viral, social media shares, pic retweets, and Facebook “likes” and comments – now it’s remembered with a simple web page archives of Sun April Fools Day jokes.
Times have changed a lot since that day at Sun, but April Fools’ Day pranks are still a staple in many cultures. The difference now is that a worldwide online audience expects über-enterainment with a daily diet of funny cat videos, humor web sites, and mini-mockumentaries. That’s why it was only a matter of time before brands took notice and started serving up funny on April Fools’ Day too.
In fact, the past few years has seen an Olympic-size competition to see which brand can deliver the biggest-budget, cleverest, and over-the top internet joke—usually at their own expense or industry’s peril—and with that, a ton of unpaid publicity.
Now it seems that a growing number of companies are embracing this snarky humor as part of their general advertising strategy. “Prankvertising” as its known or “pranks on steroids” and branded entertainment, are now part of this trend: to be as funny as possible, get the most attention, and Internet buzz. Some prankvertising stunts have even provoked lawsuits from its victims.
So why did advertisers start spending so much time and effort poking fun at themselves, other brands, and even their customers and prospects?
If you look at the history of advertising, whether on TV, radio, or print, humor has always been an advertising tactic. Making people laugh while getting in your message is a win-win. What’s changed are three things: Audience. Audience. Audience. On the Internet, brands must compete with thousands of web sites, other ads, article teasers with enticing headlines, and a cornucopia of other audience stimulation. Brands are emboldened to deliver content that cuts through the cyber-competition and screams “Look at me!”. After all, not only do advertisers get buzz with viral shares, there is the potential free PR jackpot of being featured on all the news, industry, technology, marketing, and humor web sites and blogs.
One of the clearest drivers for this recent phenomenon is the rise of social media. It opened the door for a “brand personality” to step out and engage with fans and followers, and loyal customers—no longer hiding behind the faceless, dull company. For many advertisers, this has resulted in a smart, cheeky personality with a downright self-effacing humor. Just a few of examples include classic Tweet brand battles with AMC Theaters and Oreo or
Taco Bell and Old Spice, or Grey Poupon making fun of its own image as the “snobby” mustard by having to apply to be a “member” of their Facebook page, or the 7-11 Facebook status that was so snarky it was removed.
This type of humor extends to poking fun of your industry and other ads. Take, for example the trail-blazing Kotex commercial that riffs on ads that romanticize a woman’s very unglamorous “time of the month”, or the rise of making light of other advertising tactics, like Cool Whip Frosting’s riff on charity ads (though it sounds verboten, it works). Or take-offs on depression medicine commercials, Talk to your doctor about tacos (I’m not sure exactly who is behind this one but I wouldn’t doubt Taco Bell).
Crossover ads, which take elements from different companies and mash up, also signal this shift of getting attention at any price (and attempting at humor—albeit not always successfully), like the animated brand characters in the Geico Gecko-Pillsbury Dough Boy ad or the Xerox series with Mr. Clean,
We learned in Advertising 101 that it’s all about getting attention, but the bar has been raised to be more creative, more funny, more outrageous than ever to get eyeballs on your company’s ad creations and your audience clicking and sharing. This is no surprise. What is a surprise are the lengths companies will now go. April Fools’ Day humor is now turning into 24/7. With more distractions to get your mind share, it can bring out both the best in creativity and humor, but also produce some desperation and shocking ideas at times. Either way, people will talk about the company. And after all, isn’t that what advertising is all about?