This year, more than ever before it seems, businesses got into the spirit of April Fools' Day. Twitter, for example, announced a policy change that tweeters would henceforth have to pay if they wanted to use vowels. Sony pretended it had launched a new product line, Animalia, consisting of electronics especially designed for pets. Google tried to trick the world into thinking it now offered olfactory search.
What's behind all this tomfoolery? Let's start with the main reason that companies are playing these jokes: It's because they can. Large-scale gags on the order of BBC News' revelation that spaghetti grows on trees used to be the sole province of major broadcasters. Now that every business has a web presence that allows it to publish daily, it's easy to post creative content for April 1 only to take it down by April 2.
Amidst all the fun, some killjoys have started raising the question: Just because you can prank the public, does that mean you should? As many have hinted or outright said: Shouldn't you be, um, working?
But the better question is this: Why wouldn't you do an April Fools' Day stunt?
If you think about it, even a joke that's just okay is going to get more positive attention for your brand than almost anything else you could do today, or this month. Let's stipulate that the humor behind your prank is the self-effacing kind that plays on your own quirks rather than the cruel, "kick me" kind that makes sport of your victim's gullibility. In that case, you are striking exactly the tone that social media applauds brands for in other instances. Indeed, your April Fools' gag will see plenty of extra amplification, as media from ABC News to Huffington Post to Time aggregate examples in their April Fools' Day coverage.
I'll push the point even further: A good April Fools joke — again, assuming it involves a light dose of self-mockery — can even pay benefits internally. Just as having your caricature drawn by a street artist is a good way to open your eyes to your most pronounced features, a parody is a great way to get past managers' defenses and show in stark relief what the brand really stands for in customers' minds.
Several years ago I had the idea to actually put this notion to the test. Thanks to my friend (and long-time HBR author) Tom Davenport, I had an "in" to the inner sanctum of the Harvard Lampoon. Tom's son Hayes was a Harvard undergraduate at the time, and one of the Lampoon's officers. Since the Lampoon is known for its magazine parodies, I asked him: Why don't you ever make fun of HBR? I even thought we might induce them to choose us for their next spoof by doing three things: sharing fonts and templates to make it easy to mimic the graphic design; lending lists to help them direct-market to the people who would be most likely to buy; and giving them access to archives and editors so they'd get an up-close look at our worst excesses.
Sadly, the idea died in committee here. Harvard wasn't ready to turn quite so crimson. But it made so much sense that Hayes turned around and pitched the concept to National Geographic, and they went for it.
If you're looking for any more argument that there's a positive ROI on April foolery, think of this. Workplaces have always been ground zero for April Fools' Day pranks among colleagues. The time and energy, in other words, are already being spent. Unleashing the humor on the public is a way to capitalize on it. So if you didn't do it this year, resolve to go for the jocular in 2014, and let your customers in on the joke.