What’s This?

The Laughing Fool, circa 1500 Oil on panel, Davis Museum.

By Todd Wasserman2014-04-01 16:19:02 UTC

Tech journalists hate April Fools’ Day. Not because we don’t like a good joke — heck, who doesn’t? — but because we’re basically recycling PR stunts on behalf of the companies we cover.

Just keeping track of Google on April 1 is a full-time occupation. By my count, the company had 14 pranks this year. (Does that mean there will be 15 next year?) But Google’s hardly alone. Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, Nokia, Samsung, Kickstarter, Roku and Tumblr, just to name a few, have tried their hands at goofs this April Fools’.

For Google, the tomfoolery dates back to 2000, when it introduced MentalPlex, a feature that let you summon a search by staring at a GIF. The company also introduced goofy error messages (sample: “Error 006: Query is unclear. Try again after removing hat, glasses and shoes.”)

Such lightheartedness has worked in Google’s favor. Whenever the company makes a questionable call on privacy or security or tries to herd consumers to Google Plus, the effect is mitigated by the company’s benign, playful brand image. It’s like trying to hate a stuffed animal.

Other techies have taken note. There’s probably no more divisive company than Microsoft, but the company craftily engages in self-parody, which disarms the haters. This year’s prank, which involves the return of the much-hated Clippy, will create more goodwill than a $2 million TV ad buy.

So, while there is likely some playful spirit at work, launching an April Fool’s Day prank is also very good PR.

However, not everyone is anxious to don the fool’s cap. Notable tech holdouts include IBM and Apple, two members of the old guard (in IBM’s case really old guard) for whom an April Fools’ prank would seem incongruous and weird. Even though Apple was founded on April 1, the company has been reluctant to celebrate the day.

That’s not to say that Apple lacks a sense of humor. The company’s “Get a Mac” ads were certainly funny at times, but the humor always came at the expense of the stuffed-shirt PC guy (John Hodgman). As a brand, Apple seems allergic to self-parody. The company’s humor instead stems from superiority. Now that Apple is the biggest tech brand in the world, though, that kind of humor seems mean-spirited. So Apple is a bit of a stick in the mud. A stick in the mud that makes terrific products.

Comparatively, Google’s humor is based in absurdity. The jokes are almost always a comment on the company’s penchant for experimentation outpacing the experiments’ utility. For instance, Gmail Shelfies let you use a self-portrait as your Gmail background, a great innovation that no one is asking for. Note, however, that even in the seeming self-parody, there’s some implicit puffery going on, too. The message: We’re so geeky and brilliant that we sometimes forget how this stuff applies to real life.

At the moment, fans are eating it up. In the long run, the joke may be on Google, though, says Gene Grabowski, a senior strategist at PR firm Levick.

“April Fools’ jokes belong inside the company,” he says. “Putting them out there publicly where they’re possibly misperceived is inappropriate.”

Grabowski predicts that as Google becomes more of an elder statesman, it will have to put away the floppy shoes forever.

“As these companies and this industry matures you’re going to see fewer and fewer of these jokes,” he says. “You don’t see Procter & Gamble making these kind of jokes.”

Hayes Roth, CMO of Landor Associates, though, says tech brands like Google are smart to latch on to April Fools’.

“We often talk about how brands need to have a human face,” he says. “For a tech brand, that can sometimes be difficult.”

Yet on April 1, the brands all get to let their hair down a bit.

“I think it’s a great thing to do,” he says. “It’s better than a Christmas greeting. You get to step outside yourself as a brand and have a little fun, which makes the next transgression more forgivable.”

Topics: April Fools’ Day, Business, Marketing

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