April Fool laughter good for business

Hoaxes and pranks perk up bottom line

April 02, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

If you believed everything you heard or read yesterday, presidential candidates would settle their race in a bowling alley, a cat park would be coming soon to a vacant lot in Annapolis, and a new e-mail service could send messages back in time.

From cyberspace to outer space, April Fools' Day pranks ran rampant yesterday. And in addition to the phony news releases and crank phone calls, corporations continued a recent trend of jumping on the hoax bandwagon.

Among yesterday's corporate ruses was Google's debut of "Gmail Custom Time," a service that enables users to send e-mail messages with time stamps from the past. The key technology, according to the search engine giant's Web site, is the "e-flux capacitor," a reference to the gizmo that powered the time-traveling DeLorean in the 1985 science fiction comedy film Back to the Future.

Pizza Hut changed its Web site and corporate headquarters sign in Dallas to reflect its "new" name Pasta Hut, a faux tribute to a new line of pastas (which, by the way, are real). The company even purchased a separate Web domain.

And Tribune Co., parent of The Sun, announced plans to change its corporate name to ZCMEINC - as in ZellCoMediaEnterprises Inc., a nod to CEO Sam Zell. That's not to mention plans for the company, which owns nine newspapers, to go completely paperless and switch to edible ink.

Experts say companies have realized that April Fools' Day jokes can serve as effective advertising tools, just as with other marketing strategies used on holidays.

Marketing tool

"It wasn't until the 1970s that corporations really woke up to the fact that April Fools' Day is this great marketing opportunity," said Alex Boese, curator of the museumofhoaxes.com, who has spent years studying the history of April Fools' Day.

"It can often generate huge amounts of basically free publicity for them because people end up repeating the jokes to each other," Boese said. "Some of the jokes from the '80s and '90s we still talk about today."

For Pizza Hut, April Fools' Day coincided nicely with the debut of its new product, scheduled to be launched Sunday.

"This is our 50th anniversary as a company, and we looked back and realized we haven't done an April Fools' Day," said spokesman Chris Fuller, adding that the company spent about a year devising its scheme. "We put a lot of resources behind it."

Boost in sales

Anthropology professor Bill Stuart said that companies often use any advertising opportunity they can, even when they could run the risk of offending some clients.

"The thing about capitalism is that any device that can be used to sell is [used]," said Stuart, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I think it's not really surprising that firms in fact see that maybe they can get a little extra sales."

Boese noted one such example that occurred in 1996, when Taco Bell Corp. announced that it had bought the Liberty Bell and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell.

`Bowl off'

"There really were quite a few people who were quite annoyed at Taco Bell for doing that," he said. "Over time, I think the response has shifted. Now, people just think it was a funny joke."

Corporations weren't the only ones taking a lighthearted approach to April 1. NASA's Web site featured a new space station robot named Dextre, which demanded that astronauts refer to him in the future as "Dextre the Magnificent."

And not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton challenged rival Barack Obama to a "bowl off" to settle the Democratic nomination for president.

"A bowling night. Right here in Pennsylvania. The winner take all," Clinton told reporters in Philadelphia, according to the Associated Press. "I'll even spot him two frames."

But though the farces were debunked one by one as the day progressed, one mystery remained.

"There is no definitive answer as to where it comes from," Stuart said of the April 1 tradition.

The first written record of the tradition comes from around the end of the medieval period in Europe, but it is not clear why or when it was started, both Stuart and Boese said. Many "far-fetched legends" on the origins of April Fools' Day have been found untrue, Boese said.

Regardless, April Fools' Day has become ingrained in American culture, and while many find it obnoxious, for the most part it's all in good fun.

"One of the fun things about it is that we don't know exactly where it comes from, and therefore, as in so many other cases, the alternative stories of origin are just fascinating," Stuart said. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

That appeared to be the guiding principle behind a news release from the apparently fictitious Curbside Recycling of Annapolis' Pet Project office announcing plans for a new cat park.

The release referred to the project as "a stunning advance in pet socialization."

Like dog parks

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