Should Brands Be Pranking?

“Hey, your shoelace is untied,” is the classic April Fool’s joke. This basic
concept of setting someone up and then calling them out in front of others
has been a source of humor (both good and bad) since humankind started
wearing shoes.

Alan Funt made a career of pranks with his TV Show, Candid Camera. It ran
in various forms from the late 1940s to the 1980s, verifying the very human
appeal of pranksterdom.

Picking up where Candid Camera left off, Johnny Brennan and Kamal
Ahmed, better know as The Jerky Boys, made a name for themselves by
making and recording raucous prank phone calls. Their homemade tapes
made their way onto the Howard Stern Show and eventually brought them
enough notoriety to have a series of their own. Their first three albums
went Platinum, Platinum and Gold respectively, again proving that we all
like a good joke – as long as it’s not on us.

With the onslaught of smart phones and social media it’s become easier
than ever to document and share pranks. One of the latest “innocent
pranks” that has been making the rounds is the “What The Fluff Challenge.”

It goes like this: you hold a blanket in front of you in a doorway, making
certain your dog has a clear view. Give the blanket 3 peek-a-boo lifts to
cover you completely before you drop the blanket and duck behind the
wall.  Hilarity ensues as we witness the bamboozled dog search for its
disappeared owner.

It seems inevitable that once something goes viral, marketing teams won’t
be far behind in an attempt to capitalize on the trend. But brand pranking,
like most things, is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

On the fun side, much of this Prankvertising is done on April Fools’ Day,
when we’ve got a bit of a heads up that practical brand jokes may abound.

Lego jumped on this trend by announcing their Lego VacuSort, a
revolutionary brick-sorting vacuum. Hurray! It seemed the days of barefoot
Lego pain were gone for good. But alas, to many parents’ dismay, the
VacuSort was would not be arriving ever, let alone soon.

Doritos had some fun by promoting Bold water by Doritos. “You’re 60
percent water, make every drop of it bold.”

Pop Tarts even introduced a Limited Edition “Just the Crust” toaster pastry.

Snickers pranked themselves in 2015 when they ditched the name and kept
their iconic lettering to retitle their bars, “Cranky, Grouchy, Whiny,” and a
handful other adjectives describing how we are when we’re hungry.

Then there was the time, not so long ago, when IHOP changed its logo, and
ostensibly its name, to IHOb. International House of Burgers. Whether this
was to be an actual name change or intended as a short term joke doesn’t
matter. It got people talking, and hopefully considering IHOP/b for more
than just breakfast.

This may remind you of the Coca-Cola debacle of 1985 when Coke
introduced a new recipe for its cola only to change it back 3 months later.
Some believe this was all a planned publicity stunt, but Coke maintains that
it was a serious attempt to replace the original. It’s one thing to shake up
your brand but another to abandon it, and your audience, completely.

Why Brand Prank? You may as well ask, “Why advertise?” Brand pranking
seems like a new tool in an old chest. In this contemporary world, where
disruption is often the desired result, it’s easy to see how causing a ruckus
might bring some attention to your product or service; if you can make it
funny, even better.

We’ve all said something we wish we hadn’t. But as we know, once it’s
posted, there’s no taking it back. Pranksters beware: Pranks can go wrong
when the audience doesn’t feel like they’re in on the joke, so make certain
they don’t feel like the wool has been pulled over their eyes.

For instance, Taco Bell once declared it had bought the Liberty Bell in an
effort to take down the national debt. They would call it the Taco Liberty
Bell. Not many had connected April 1stwith this announcement in 1996 so
The National Park Service received thousands of callers in protest only to
learn they had been fooled, pranked. Taco Bell generated some buzz but not
everyone found the joke amusing.

The takeaway is that marketers are warping their brands in ways they may
not have dreamed of before, such as poking fun at themselves or
augmenting their brand entirely.

Consider these points before pranking your own brand:

  • Does humor align with who you are?
  • What is the best/worst possible outcome from pranking?
  • Are there double meanings or slang you may be referencing without knowing it?
  • Are there current events to play off of or stay away from?
  • How do you make certain your audience is in on the gag?
  • What do we do if something goes horribly, horribly wrong?

Perhaps it’s best to only augment your brand for special occasions.
Halloween and Christmas see plenty of packaging variations and by now,
you’ve most likely heard about International Women’s Day, where
McDonald’s turned their golden arch upside down to make a W. Brawny
featured a plaid-shirted woman on their paper towel packages declaring,
“Strength has no gender,” and Johnny Walker was replaced by Jane.

Just like many tune in for Super Bowl Ads, the brand prank could become
an event for fans to watch out for on April Fools’ Day. Or, it could fade into
another passé fad. Keep an eye on next years’ Women’s Day: what were
once novel statements may lead to a saturation of gender positioning that
reeks of marketing opportunism instead of sincerity.

Some of the best/worst marketing pranks of 2018 can be found here.

Keep your eyes out and let us know what pranks you see out there today.