The 9 Worst April Fools’ Day Business Pranks: What To Learn from Them

person looking at a computer with four notes stuck on their back reading "1 april fool's day"

April Fools’ Day is nearly upon us. While the date’s pranks can be a fun and cost-effective way of getting your business noticed, it’s also very easy to get it wrong and end up with egg on your face.

If you’re an entrepreneur looking to be in on the joke – and not the butt of it – we’ve compiled a list of the worst April Fools’ Day business pranks. We’ve coupled this with our insight into the mistakes they made, so you can learn from them and get inspired to offer your own take.

With nearly 15 years of market coverage, we’ve seen plenty of businesses making a splash with a prank, like when PayPal said it could get you printing money from your phone.

But for every rousing success, there are plenty of duds – like the ones we list here. While the reasons for their failure do vary, they all provide good learnings of what to be mindful of when coming up with your marketing stunt.

person looking at a computer with four notes stuck on their back reading "1 april fool's day"
April Fools' Day offers a prime opportunity for your brand to show a funny, human side while calling attention to its selling points to potential new customers

1. Virgin Group Goes from U.F.O. to U.F.ail

Balloon looking like UFO flying over dark morning sky
(Credit: Chris Moss)

We open the proceedings with one from Virgin Group owner Richard Branson. While he’s far from the OG corporate prankster, he did amass a history of April Fools’ pranks over the decades. He even went so far as to call it one of his “favourite pastimes of the year” in 2021.

His prank peak was arguably flying a balloon disguised as an UFO over London in 1989. It resulted in three police forces being mobilised, several TV and radio reporting the scenes, and the army being notified. Branson was also threatened with arrest for wasting police resources.

What went wrong? For starters, the alleged UFO was no match for the British weather, being blown off-course from its intended Central London landing point onto a field in the outskirts of the city. Add to that endangering drivers and risking jail time – the writing’s on the wall.

Why is it a flop? The very company the UFO was meant to advertise (Virgin Galactic) didn’t come into being until 2004, which means the ploy served more to amuse Branson than anything else.

What’s the main takeaway? Before you go through the motions of creating brand awareness through an April Fools’ initiative, you need an active brand. If you don’t, you won’t have a marketing tool: you may only be perceived as one.

2. Playboy Romania Turns Tone-Deaf Up to 11

Protest against domestic violence in Bucharest
(Credit: AP)

This is a nasty one in any shape or form, but we feel it’s noteworthy in its illustration of how tone-deaf a corporate joke can be. In 2000, Playboy Romania decided to run a piece entitled – wait for it – “How to Beat Your Wife… Without Leaving Marks on Her Body” as a joke. At this point, you can imagine the piece’s content without further comment.

Rightfully, it earned a massive backlash, with 14 women’s organisations condemning the piece in a joint statement and a protest happening in Bucharest. In fact, it was the very first demonstration against domestic violence ever to take place in the Eastern European country.

What went wrong? While it’s no secret that women don’t make up the large majority of Playboy’s readership, inciting domestic violence – even in jest – was a gross miscalculation. It was reported by Reuters at the time that more than half of the women killed in Romania in 1999 were victims of partners – a frightening statistic that, alone, should have prevented the piece from being published.

Why is it a flop? Some will say that there isn’t such a thing as bad publicity, but when your prank gets your brand a lot of hate, it can hardly be called a marketing success.

What’s the main takeaway? As obvious as it may sound, make sure your prank isn’t a) inciting crime, b) glossing over hard realities, or c) insensitive to social minorities.

3. Greater Manchester Police Stars in Its Own Bad ‘Black Mirror’ Episode

Screenshot of Greater Manchester Police's 2015 infamous April Fools' Day tweet
(Credit: Twitter)

Brand awareness is not exclusive to companies and sometimes organizations of other types (public, non-profit, etc) also make use of April Fools’ Day to build their profile. Case in point: Great Manchester Police’s dystopian tweet from 2015, which announced (in very Black Mirror fashion) that it would release the prisoners who received more votes in a poll – with the top-voted even earning a post-jail holiday.

Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with victims’ families – and sensible folks in general – who accused the organisation of trivialising many of the serious crimes committed by the inmates.

What went wrong? While the joke might have been funny in principle, the failure to consider its wider implications rendered this prank doomed from the start. The fact that a police force was behind it didn’t help matters, as the subversive humor here clashed with the organization’s image as the upkeepers of law and order.

Why is it a flop? For an organization that had nothing to gain by sounding funny or hip on Twitter, getting caught in a media storm over it is a lose-lose scenario on all fronts.

What’s the main takeaway? Before devising your April Fools’ marketing strategy, analyse if you really could benefit from it (preferably by setting measurable goals), and if it aligns with your business’ image.

4. Google Drops the Ball with ‘Mic Drop’

(Credit: The Guardian)

Probably the most infamous prank on this list, Google built on its jokester history in 2016 by introducing a “Mic Drop” button on its email. It allowed users to reply to a conversation on Gmail with a GIF of a Minion (aka the yellow helpers from the Despicable Me franchise) dropping a mic and automatically archive it, blocking any potential replies.

The twist? It was neatly placed right beside your regular “Send” button, causing a headache for fuming users. It saw the tech giant pull the plug on the prank earlier than planned and offer an apology.

What went wrong? For an interactive prank, there was a clear oversight of user experience on this one. The company admitted to failing to give users the choice to have the feature installed and even having a bug that would, in effect, have it enabled even if the correct “Send” button was pressed.

Why is it a flop? The fact that a nasty bug made it to the public underscores how this elaborate prank required more development. Likely, time constraints led to an all-out embarrassment from one of the world’s leading companies.

What’s the main takeaway? Plan your April Fools’ marketing strategy, while also bearing in mind what’s executable with the time you have at your disposal.

5. Lyft Hails a Prank on Itself

Still from Lyft Mono's promo video
(Credit: YouTube)

In 2017, Lyft, a currently beleaguered ride-hailing app, announced (complete with promo video) Mono, a glove that allowed you to hail one of their cars by simply raising a thumb. The piece of hardware seemed too good to be true – while also looking super sleek and hi-tech.

As it happens, Mono was a real thing. As in, Lyft spent a fortune making and marketing something that worked but was never meant to reach the market. Cheap laughs usually don’t cost this much.

What went wrong? It’s normal for companies to approach April Fools’ Day with a non-existent product (in fact, we have more examples below). However, it’s uncommon for them to research and develop a product that isn’t being sold, spending precious budget in the process. Long story short: Lyft pranked itself here.

Why is it a flop? Lyft invested considerable time and money in what turned out to be an expensive joke and, in terms of brand awareness, it never reached the highs of its rival, Uber.

What’s the main takeaway? Don’t go overboard: if you’re a small business owner, plan within your means and go for pranks that are effective but don’t require high investment. If you’re a medium-sized business owner and have a specific budget for this type of marketing, stick to it and make sure it’s spent smartly.

6. Durex’s Hot Take Turns Tasteless

Ad for Durex's Mala Hot Pot condom
(Credit: Durex)

Durex announced a “Fish Skin Condom with Mala Hot Pot flavour” as part of its 2019 April Fools’ Day campaign. The novelty was allegedly made with real mala oil – arguably one of the spiciest out there. The overall aim, seemingly, was to serve all sorts of hotness in one go.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to state that, even as a joke, this is as ill-advised an idea as they come. Ultimately, Durex’s faux pas regarding its clientele’s preferences led to a resounding, tasteless dud.

What went wrong? By creating a product that provoked more wincing than enticing, Durex veered off-brand in a way that didn’t do it any favours. This likely contributed to the muted response the campaign got when it was released.

Why is it a flop? From a conceptual standpoint, Durex failed to understand what its clients would consider desirable, and it didn’t make for a good brand awareness strategy.

What’s the main takeaway? Your prank should be about reinforcing good aspects of the product or service you provide.

7. Poo-Pourri Gets Flushed Away

Ad of a desk attached to a toilet
(Credit: Twitter)

Air freshener company Poo-Pourri came out in 2021 with a novelty product: the Doo Desk. In essence, it was a desk/toilet combo that allowed you to work while… well, you get the idea.

While light-hearted and somewhat on-brand, the timing could not have been worse. At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation of remote work were taking their toll on employees’ mental health, with many struggling to find a work-life balance. To suggest that one couldn’t pause even to go to the toilet didn’t make this a funny one.

What went wrong? Poo-Pourri, despite its history of April Fools’ Day pranks, failed to read the (bath)room for this one. By tackling a then-current event in a very racy way, it created a divide between brand and audience that flushed away this marketing opportunity.

Why is it a flop? The minute your prank comes off as insensitive, you’re losing the empathy it needs to fly and thereby sacrificing the chance of raising good brand awareness – which is what happened in this campaign.

What’s the main takeaway? As with all comedy, timing is everything. Invest in a joke that’s current but doesn’t downplay ongoing or recent thorny events.

8. Teletubbies Join the Crypto Wave

Teletubbies' cryptocurrency
(Credit: Twitter)

In 2021, children’s TV characters Teletubbies took a break from saying “eh-oh” and went all in on the cryptocurrency craze, releasing its TubbyCoin BigHugs! Token in time for that year’s April Fools’ Day.

Considering that the show’s viewers barely understand the concept of regular money, there was a clear mismatch between message and audience on this joke. The parents, for their part, got some weird ads on social media, which didn’t promote the Teletubbies’ brand in any flattering way.

What went wrong? Despite the campaign being coupled with a charity effort, it didn’t overcome the jarring effect of associating the Teletubbies’ brand with something that felt so distant from its image and main product.

Why is it a flop? The campaign didn’t talk to the show’s viewers, nor did it cater to a particular need of their parents. Because of this, it didn’t go beyond the joke, which is what a good April Fools’ Day prank should do for businesses.

What’s the main takeaway? Even if outlandish, your prank must be related or connected to your selling point and talk to your audience.

9. Volkswagen Charges Up and Crashes Down

Volkswagen logo altered to read "Voltswagen"
(Credit: Volkswagen)

We round off our list with another one from 2021. This one is courtesy of Volkswagen which, in the lead up to April Fools’ Day that year, announced it’d change its name to “Voltswagen”, due to “the company’s future-forward investment in e-mobility”.

By the time it opened up about the ruse, it had already been widely reported as being true – to the point that it even affected the company’s stock prices. An official investigation into the legality of the move was also considered.

What went wrong? Firstly, by running a press release on March 29, Volkswagen courted credibility in a risky way. Also, the joke was ultimately a double-edged sword: keeping it would be a lie with grave consequences, coming clean made the company look particularly non-committal to green solutions.

Why is it a flop? Beyond the legal debacle, Volkswagen made the mistake of trivialising a serious matter (the investment in more sustainable cars). It also failed to understand that this change would actually be desired by its audience as well as the market at large, and that its subsequent denial would hurt its brand.

What’s the main takeaway? Make sure you don’t risk your audience’s disappointment by promising a fake but highly desirable development.

April Fools’ Day Business Pranks: Top Tips Recap

Throughout this article, we used the bad examples in our selection to highlight takeaways that you can use when developing your April Fools’ Day marketing strategy. However, if you belong to the TL;DR crowd, not to worry: here’s a recap of our nine top tips.

  • Have an active brand first
  • Avoid potentially criminal or insensitive material
  • Analyse if your brand can really benefit from an April Fools’ Day joke
  • Only move ahead with ideas executable within the timeframe you have
  • Don’t blow your budget on what should be a low-key marketing tool
  • Reinforce the good aspects of your product or service
  • Invest in topical content but don’t trivialise current thorny events
  • Make sure the joke relates or connects to your selling point
  • Don’t announce something that’ll disappoint your audience when retracted

Next Steps

As you’ve seen, April Fools’ Day provides a major opportunity to give a human, light touch to your brand and make it reach new audiences. This is particularly true on social media, where entertainment and humour rule supreme and where many of the latest successful business pranks hit the jackpot.

To make a splash, you have to be deeply attuned to what your selling point is and what your intended audience wants. Bearing this in mind, go out there and get creative!

In the meantime, we, at Expert Market, will continue to research the business world and give you the best tips to help your venture grow – no joke about it!

Written by:
Lucas Pistilli author headshot photo
Lucas is a Brazilian-born journalist and Expert Market’s go-to writer for all things EPOS systems, merchant accounts, and franking machines. Having covered business, politics and technology for many years, he’s driven by his passion for the written word and his goal to help people make well-informed decisions.