It’s a struggle to find silver linings these days. Every small pleasure afforded by the surreality of staying at home all day every day—hey, I’ve lost 5 pounds from eating fewer onion rings!—is offset by the knowledge that people are dying and many more would too if we weren’t all staying at home. Though I’ve tried to stay upbeat throughout this still-early pandemic, the forced positivity can feel like an insult to anyone suffering out on the front lines of this crisis. There is one unequivocal upside, however. Come Wednesday, we will almost certainly be spared from the unfunny annual horror show that is the corporate April Fools’ joke.
Any other spring, this would be the scourge of our times. On April 1, countless companies pretend they are human beings with senses of humor and set their marketing teams loose to conceive and deploy a series of airless pranks for people who have been stupid enough to sign up for their email lists or follow them on Twitter. Fake product launches, risible new features, dumb references to famed science fiction books and movies—all of these are common “gags” that companies “pull” each April 1. This belabored “tradition” is a function of internet startups wanting to trick people into thinking that they are different from other businesses, and of other businesses wanting to fool people into thinking that they are internet startups. The joke’s on you, corporate America: No one has ever been fooled by your bad jokes!
Though I can’t say for sure when this practice became an internet phenomenon, Google has long been one of the lamest participants. The inaugural Google April Fools’ prank, on April 1, 2000, involved a fake product called “MentalPlex” that professed to search the internet by reading the querier’s mind. “Search smarter and faster with Google’s MentalPlexTM,” the site’s homepage read, instructing users to “Remove hat and glasses” and “Project mental image of what you want to find.” Credit where it’s due: The MentalPlex gag was sort of funny, if only for being so novel. Back then, it really was refreshing for a company to drop the veil of propriety and go all-out on an elaborate joke for no real reason at all. It humanized Google insofar as it conjured up images of a bunch of nerds sitting at their desks in Silicon Valley, pulling this prank just because it cracked them up.
Over the years, however, Google’s yearly joke became one of those traditions that no one actually enjoys, like sending holiday cards or attending a parade. The ever-metastasizing company had long stopped being just a search engine and set its sights on basically becoming the entire internet; meanwhile the April Fools’ jokes kept coming, generating cognitive dissonance as Google’s world-devouring intentions rubbed up against April Fools’ gags that were somehow even more performatively twee than the Google Doodle was every other day of the year. On April 1, 2014, for example—nine months after Edward Snowden revealed that Google and other companies had cooperated with the National Security Agency in its PRISM domestic surveillance initiative—Google pretended to be launching a service called “Google Apps for Business Dogs,” which was “a suite of business apps optimized to harness canine energy in the workplace.” On April 1, 2018, months before the European Union would fine Google more than $5 billion for antitrust violations, the company unveiled its “Bad Joke Detector,” which would scan your smartphone and delete all the bad jokes that were stored there. Hilarious!
Along the way, every other company joined in this obfuscatory quest, to the point where journalists were deluged each March with PR pitches promising exclusive, embargoed looks at how DiscountDogBeds.com plans to celebrate April Fools’ by accepting tail wags as payment. That is not a real corporate April Fools’ joke, by the way, but the actual ones were approximately that dumb. Take Amazon Publishing’s 2018 announcement that, having conquered the world’s book trade, it would soon be delivering all of your favorite human authors directly to your house. Or Farm Rich Snacks’ 2019 gag about its brand-new line of “Gender Reveal Mozzarella Sticks.” Most of the time, corporate April Fools’ jokes come across like the year’s worst Super Bowl commercials, but with cheaper production values.
This year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic’s decimation of our tolerance for corporate whimsy, we won’t have to endure Google’s latest prank, as the company has announced that it’s sitting out April Fools’ Day. If the dearth of relevant PR pitches in my inbox right now is any indication, most of the other serial April Fools’ offenders are planning to follow suit. There will certainly be a few companies that do proceed as if this were a normal April, and they will deserve all the scorn you can stand to send their way. With luck, the coronavirus will kill the corporate April Fools’ prank for good.
It’s not that I am reflexively anti–April Fools’ Day. My sister and I have a long history of trying to fool each other each year with elaborate, straight-faced jokes that, over the years, have grown less and less jokey and more and more transgressive. We’ve lied to each other about car crashes, medical accidents, and other horrible things, all to get the other person to suspend their disbelief and take it seriously for a split second, at which point the prankster can loudly yell “April Fools!” and hang up the phone in triumph. It’s cruel, but it’s honest!
What I’m against, specifically, is the spectacle of profit-seeking institutions trying to pretend they are also your friends. One of the more aggravating effects of the internet takeover of corporate life has been the anthropomorphizing of commerce. Every dumb brand wants to pretend it’s your funny and/or absurdist and/or weirdly aggro pal. But unlike most jokes, where the teller’s goal is to make the listener laugh or think or feel some other noncommodifiable feeling, the point of these corporate April Fools’ pranks is to promote brand loyalty, period. The brands of the world, on April 1 and on every other day, are pretending to be your friend in order to sell you smart speakers and burgers. There’s nothing actually funny about that.