April Fools' day is no longer only a day on which you prank your family and friends; it has evolved into an opportunity for companies to use jokes as a marketing stunt. Especially on social media, companies have tried to use believable or controversial 'fake news' to attract attention.
A new interpretation of April Fools'
Last Sunday was not only Easter Sunday, but also April Fool's day. The tradition is to pull pranks and jokes on other people. In the last few years, more and more companies have noticed that an April Fools' joke is a great opportunity to connect with their audience, while also showing off their playful side. This year again, many companies have tried to trick the general audience. Few succeeded in making people believe their news, as many people on Facebook commented their suspicions. However, some companies and organizations succeeded in a different way: in gaining attention for an issue they wanted to address. An element of seriousness in what is supposed to be ludic behavior seems to be of importance for success.
While the joke failed in tricking people, it did catch the attention of the masses
An interesting element about many companies' jokes is that they published a video or article announcement early, in the week leading up to April 1st. The main idea behind the early publishing is probably to throw the audience off and to make the joke more believable. However, for many articles on Facebook, the comment section was flooded with people speculating the video or article was a joke.
An example of a prank that was quickly uncovered as an April Fools' joke was employment agency YoungCapital’s announcement that everyone coming in for a job interview could take a shot of alcohol or smoke a joint, to relieve their nerves.
While the joke failed in tricking people, it did catch the attention of the masses. On April 1st, the company announced their new app, which aims to relieve stress by answering questions about job interviews.
YoungCapital was not the only one that tried to raise awareness for stress-related issues. Leiden University also did so, in collaboration with famous Dutch comedian Jochem Myjer. On Thursday March 29th, both parties announced that Myjer would host a course on dealing with stress. Students of Leiden University could enroll for the course, which over 600 students did. The joke was a success: most people thought it was real. National news sources picked it up and reported about the event.
On April 1st Myjer posted a video confessing that it was a joke and that he felt guilty because so many students enrolled. Leiden University emphasized that the level of stress many students encounter is not a joke. The university lists several ways in which they support students with stress, and announce a free symposium on stress-free studying. This was a successful April Fools' joke, while also conveying a serious message.
Another example of a possibly successful joke was an announcement by former pop group Ch!pz, who were going to give a reunion concert on April 1st. This started as a joke, but the overall response was so positive that they are now looking for possibilities to actually organize a reunion concert.
An element of seriousness
Some of the announcements were immediately uncovered as April Fools' jokes, while others were successful in tricking people. What are possible factors of success, looking at the examples given above? An explanation might be found in the notion of ‘ludicity’. “Ludic” comes from the Latin term “ludus”, meaning play, game or sport (Huizinga, 2014). Blommaert (2017) has applied this term to modern culture already, for example to memes. He also highlights some elements of play from a list Huizinga (2014) composed, of which one seems very applicable to the above-mentioned April Fools' jokes. One element of ludicity/play that Blommaert points out is that ‘play’ is not just what it is mostly thought to be; play also contains a certain degree of seriousness and has an inevitable aspect of learning.
What we can learn from this is while this was not believable, the topic was controversial enough for people to still bring the news to others’ attention
This is what differentiates the believable jokes from the ones that were immediately exposed as fake: the element of seriousness. "Seriousness" in this context can be best defined as a joke being fairly realistic, or addressing an issue that is real. Both the joke from Leiden University and Jochem Myjer and the reunion of Ch!pz could easily be real. It is not unthinkable that a former pop group comes back together; groups like the Spice Girls and Take That have done it before. In the case of Myjer it is also very realistic that he would collaborate with Leiden University, as he is a proud inhabitant of Leiden and is involved in numerous activities in the city. The joke by YoungCapital, however, wasn't realistic at all, and therefore raised suspicion more easily. However, it did contain an underlying element of seriousness: the announcement of YoungCapital's new app to help people feel less stressed about a job interview. The company released the app to genuinely help people, which underlines the serious message the joke contained.
Trick people, or take the controversial route
What can we learn from this? As much as a joke is meant to be funny and informal, we must not undermine how important it is that the joke contains at least some degree of seriousness in order for it to be believable. That is, if you want your audience to be tricked. For jokes like YoungCapital’s option of relieving nerves with alcohol or marijuana the aim might not even be to trick people. Their goal might have been just to gain enough attention to reach a bigger audience for the announcement of their new app on April 1st.
What we can learn from this is while this was not believable, the topic was controversial enough for people to still bring the news to others’ attention. This led to a bigger audience for the company and more awareness for stress, just like the aim of Leiden University. So regardless of whether you succeed at tricking people, an attempt at an April Fools' joke is an effective way to gain attention.
Blommaert, J. (2017). Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that. Retrieved on April 3rd, 2018.
Huizinga, J. (2014 ) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers.