No kidding: April Fools in the fake news age
Picture the scene. It’s 1987, and Cold War tensions are running pretty hot. From nowhere, photos emerge showing two of the era’s biggest rivals— USSR premiere Mikhail Gorbachev and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher— kissing and canoodling.
What sounds like the biggest scandal of the day was actually a well-executed April Fools joke. One of countless examples whereby the media, in that case the Daily Mirror, decided to have a laugh and fabricate a story in order to mark 1st April, the only day of the year where lies and mistruths are actively encouraged.
Other examples include the ITN report on the British Department of Energy inventing a thermally insulated tie, potentially cutting down on office heating bills. Or Big Ben’s famous clock face being replaced by a digital display. Or Australia’s This Day Tonight show announcing that the country would soon move to ‘metric time’, wherein one minute equates to one hundred seconds, one hundred minutes one hour.
Unless the calendar has gone completely unnoticed of late you’ll be aware that this Sunday is indeed 1st April. In the past we’ve compiled roundups of the best stunts ever conceived to mark the occasion, but what was once an open license to play tricks and publish mischief could look a lot different in 2018. How can the age-old pastime of making up ridiculous stories continue in an era when fake news has become so widespread we now consider it an enemy?
Rachel Thompson wrote along similar lines for Mashable last spring. Her article outlines how we are being trained to sniff out lies presented as truth by the current media landscape.
“Fake news is no longer a once-yearly event,” she explains. “It’s a 365-day-a-year news cycle.”
For brands this poses a difficult question. Is it still possible to dupe consumers into believing outlandish claims when they have grown accustomed to questioning everything? Perhaps more importantly, is it still possible to dupe them and keep them on side?
2017 saw several attempts at pulling the wool over watching eyes when April Fools hit, but were these really successful jokes, or did they make the cut by being painfully close to reality?
Donald Trump hired Piers Morgan as his new Showbusiness Advisor according to Metro. Third class standing-only train carriages would soon be easing overcrowding, says iNews. Pornhub announced it was going to roll out a new feature that automatically shared clips to Facebook.
When you consider President Trump’s love for bright lights and glamour, real-life proposals to send old London Underground stock up North to be repurposed and used as new trains, and the constant push to have more content- of any type— circulated online, these japes become difficult to detect. We could imagine them happening.
By comparison, Virgin Australia’s claim of introducing a new Canine Crew of dogs, the Daily Mail’s pictures from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s shotgun wedding in Las Vegas, and that Guardian report on George Osborne’s new fashion line were all clearly fantasy. Sorry George. Nevertheless, the worked in terms of pulling eyeballs to hungry news brands.
With owned media channels— namely company websites, blogs and social media avenues— allowing any organisation to self publish, the temptation has never been stronger to try and get involved in the April Fools action.
But where do we draw the line? Without putting too fine a point on it, once the distinction between fact and fiction has become indistinguishable, those looking to create fiction must work extra-hard to sell their story, and need savvy guidance on how that story should be sold without being seen as part of the misdirection problem. Again, it comes down to good judgement, knowing the elasticity of your brand personality and having the right reputation professionals on board.