Opinion

If you want to play a prank on someone, make sure they like you first

In the aftermath of yet another April Fools Day, Host/Havas ECD Jon Austin looks why sometimes it's no laughing matter.

When I was a junior creative, April Fools’ briefs were some of the most fun, audacious and exciting opportunities of the year. We would create downright bonkers stuff, and watch on, hoping unsuspecting punters would ‘fall for it’. 

The biggest risk was that brands’ pranks would go unnoticed. Now, the biggest risk is that they generate a full-scale boycott.

And you know what? I get it. Not because of any righteous indignation or solemn take on the state of the world around us: quite the opposite – I think it’s more important than ever that we have a laugh. But rather, because there’s nothing more annoying than someone you don’t really like playing a joke on you.

Right now, consumers’ relationships with brands have never been more tenuous. Aussies could happily do away with 77% of all the brands in their lives without caring. They seek out more and more ways to avoid engaging with brand comms. 91% of them find ads more intrusive than ever before. And trying to make people ‘fall for it’ is exactly how we got here.

In a fake news era, where it seems that everyone from world leaders down are trying to pull a fast one, many people hate brands taking part in April Fool’s because – at worst – they think most brands take them for fools every single day of the year.

Yet, despite none of this being new news, we can’t seem to help ourselves. On every other day and every other project, we painstakingly seek to understand how to meaningfully communicate with an apathetic or time-poor or on-the-fence consumer. But on April 1st, for some reason, our brains convince us that the best way to engage with a distrusting audience is to try and trick them. Or as The Verge so brilliantly put it: “April 1st has rolled around once again, and like villainous treasure hunters in an Indiana Jones movie, it seems brands just can’t stop opening the box of forbidden knowledge and getting their faces melted off.”

Sure, an April 1st face melting is the extreme (a prize awarded this year to Volkswagen, who bizarrely tried to fool everyone into thinking they were rebranding to the much more eco-friendly name ‘Voltswagen’. All in jest, mind you. They’re still the same brand associated with the emissions scandal), but more often than not, it’s going to result in groans and eye rolls over any genuine positivity. Or worse still, all those ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it were actually real’ products and partnerships we try and dupe people with, only serve as reminders of what your brand doesn’t actually offer the rest of the year.

The last genuinely brilliant April Fool’s gag I remember was DDB’s Reverse April Fool’s ad for BMW six years ago – a prank that didn’t treat its consumers like idiots, but rather rewarded those who believed in the brand.

And that’s the far bigger point here. Our decreasing ability to participate in a day that’s about tricking people, even with the best of intentions, is a shot across our industry bows. It’s a reminder that, unless comedy and trickery is in our brand DNA, we need to earn permission to prank by treating our audience like people, not marks.

We need to work towards getting out of the 77% of brands that people could happily do away with (the 77% that are likely to annoy with their pranks rather than amuse), and into the 23% that people find indispensable. The few that can have a knowing chuckle with their audience and heighten brand love, rather than denigrate it. 

We need to give people what they want every other day of the year, so we can get away with giving them what they didn’t ask for on that one ridiculously cliched date.

Take a page out of Google’s book – a brand with a long-standing tradition of April Foolery. Understanding that people are tired and wary and more mistrustful than ever, they’ve decided to break with tradition and focus instead on being helpful to people. That’s a brand who knows how to be indispensable. That’s a brand that’s reading the room and is actually giving their audience what they want.

And when they decide, once again, to prank people, I guarantee it’ll be better received than Voltswagen.

Jon Austin is the ECD of Host/Havas.

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