Is a PR Prank Worth It on April Fools’ Day?

Shelly Runyon

You may have seen that Richard Branson – a notorious April Fools’ prankster – announced much earlier today from Australia that he’s moving his company, the Virgin Group, U.S. operations, and a section of its U.K. operations to Branson, Mo., home of his “great-great-uncle, Reuben S. Branson.” As he claims on the Virgin website Ruben Branson founded the town of Branson, and so he too will settle into the town, bringing with him a direct route from San Francisco to Branson, Mo. Virgin America, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Mobile USA and every other lifestyle extension of the brand will follow.  2992148474_c3f3a3b5f5_z

Image by Richard Kelland https://www.flickr.com/photos/rkelland/ used under CC license.

While it’s easy to imagine Richard Branson and his communications team chuckling as they drafted the post, the joke comes with harsh criticism from the residents of economically-depressed Branson, mostly directed toward Branson Mayor Reanne Presley for “endorsing” the prank. It’s a calculated risk. For Virgin, the social and media recognition for being the first April Fools’ prank of the year undoubtedly outweighs the risk of alienating Branson residents from the Virgin brand.

A well-thought out prank can bring a lot of buzz to a company on April 1st. A quick Google search reveals warnings from PR practitioners who say it’s just not worth it – but the reality, is if it’s executed well, it just may be worth it. We’ve identified 10 of the best pranks in recent years (in no particular order) and we’d love to hear from you – would you advise your client to do an April Fools’ prank?Reach me at @shelly_runyon   

  • Last Year, Moshi, announced a new line of mouse chargers to accompany its accessory collection – MouseBolt, powered by a live mouse in a wheel. Watch the YouTube ad here.
  • Google announced in 2007 a paper archiving innovation called Gmail Paper, which would mail a printed copy of your archived emails to you. “What happened to stamps, filing cabinets and the mailman?” asked Google. Read more on Gmail Paper’s homepage.
  • Sam Adams joined in April Fools’ fun last year by introducing its newest craft beer, HeliYum, the world’s first helium-carbonated beer. Watch the commercial on YouTube.
  • Even the U.S. Army had some fun in 2013 when it announced a “Working Cat Program” for Grumpy Cats. View the press release and accompanying images here.
  • In 2012, YouTube offered fans the YouTube collection on DVD, poking fun at the way we used to consume media. Watch the promo on YouTube here.
  • In 1996, Taco Bell joked that it purchased that famous American icon – The Liberty Bell – outraging the country with its claims that the Taco Liberty Bell sponsorship would ease the national debt (a hot topic that election year). Some say this was a major backfire, some say it was the prank of the century. Read the print ad on USHistory.org.
  • In 2013, Sony announced a line of pet-friendly tech products including a TV for dogs that attaches to dog beds and a line of cat audio speakers that comes with a playlist of cat songs. Read the press release here.
  • You may remember an epic April Fools’ win from Burger King UK in 1989 when they unveiled the Left-Handed Whopper, designed with all the condiments rotated 180 degrees to be better weighted for left-handed comfort. Read the press release here.
  • Last year, Netflix announces the original series, “Sizzling Bacon” and “Rotisserie Chicken.” Read the story reported here in USA Today.
  • In 2011, Monotype gave a nod to its Comic Sans critics by introducing Comic Sans Pro – perfect for corporate mission statements and executive memos. Read CNET’s take on the prank here.
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