April Fools’ Day presents a rare opportunity for companies and brands: Pull off a good prank and score tons of positive press, perform a bad prank and lose money and customers.
There’s no doubt that the stakes are high for companies looking to use April Fools’ Day pranks as marketing stunts and a chance to show their fun side. Here are a few companies that got it right, some that got it wrong and how much they had to invest to make these massive pranks happen.
5 Most Expensive April Fools’ Day Pranks
Coming up with an April Fools’ Day prank doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor, but some companies go by the motto “go big or go home.” Whether they’ve created videos, released fake products or just made fake advertisements, here are a few companies who took their pranks to the next level — and paid for it.
1. Richard Branson: UFO Hoax
When it comes to going big or going home, there are few better examples than Richard Branson. Known for his business — Virgin Airlines — and his antics, Branson took pranking to the next level in 1989 when he decided to turn a hot air balloon into what looked like a UFO with an alien on board and all.
Branson’s prank didn’t go according to plan when the balloon ended up crashing in a field, but he certainly got the attention he was looking for. But talk about expensive: Not only did he acquire and design a hot air balloon, Branson nearly got arrested for causing traffic jams and panic as police were sent to the scene and the army was alerted to the event.
2. Burger King: Left-Handed Whopper
In 1998, Burger King decided to pull a prank that would excite left-handed people everywhere: a special left-handed whopper. Claiming to be just like a regular whopper, but with everything rotated 180 degrees, this prank fooled many hungry consumers.
Although Burger King didn’t have to spend a dime on an actual product, they took out multiple ads to the tune of $300,000 each to spread the word — and that’s no small fee for a one-time prank.
3. Taco Bell: Liberty Bell
The reason so many companies put down big bucks on April Fools’ Day pranks is because the pranks very often turn into a great source of publicity. This is exactly what happened when Taco Bell created an elaborate prank claiming that the company purchased The Liberty Bell in 1996. Taco Bell took out a full-page ad in multiple U.S. newspapers to showcase their “new purchase.”
The Taco Liberty Bell prank cost Taco Bell $300,000, but earned them an estimated $25 million in free publicity, according to the PR agency that ran the campaign. And that free press is the gift that keeps on giving as this prank is still being hailed as one of the best ever done by a company.
4. Netflix: PSA Videos and More
Netflix has made a name for themselves with the many April Fools’ pranks they’ve played, ranging from messing with the video genres to creating original films like a 20-minute feature on cooking bacon.
Netflix spares no expense to prank their loyal audience, even if it means their users are watching fake films or PSAs on the dangers of binge-watching TV. They even hired well-known actors, like Michael Kelly from “House of Cards” and Selenis Leyva from “Orange Is the New Black,” to star in these PSAs. Netflix hasn’t posted numbers on these pranks, but paying the actors and producing even a short video can cost a pretty penny.
5. Pizza Hut: Pizza Beer
Although certainly not as expensive as producing an original film, Pizza Hut pulled off a potentially expensive and highly believable video in 2015 announcing Pizza Hut Pepperoni Pilsner, a pizza-flavored beer.
As far as weird beer flavors go, pizza-flavored beer doesn’t seem all that far-fetched, making this a fairly successful prank for Pizza Hut. What’s more, with a beautifully produced video shot in a brewery and chock full of interviews and “testimonials,” Pizza Hut must have spent thousands of dollars to convince the world that pizza beer could be their new favorite thing.
5 Least Expensive April Fools’ Day Pranks
Some of the least expensive pranks are those when companies use their in-house talent to make them happen. That can include the work of designers, writers, product developers and engineers to temporarily redesign homepages, launch new products and so on. Although there’s still a cost involved — the time spent by employees — these pranks can be a lot cheaper than taking out an ad or releasing a physical product.
1. YouTube: Shut Down
Although some companies announce new products for their April Fools’ Day pranks, in 2013, YouTube went in the opposite direction when they pretended to shut down instead.
Claiming to go on hiatus until 2023, to find the best YouTube video of all the videos ever posted, YouTube worked with The Onion and went on a media blitz to announce the shutdown. Although they didn’t actually shut down in the end, if they had the prank could have cost them millions in daily ad revenue.
2. Amazon: New Site
YouTube wasn’t the only site willing to fool its users that a major change was coming. Amazon launched a “new version” of their site in 2015 that looked exactly like their site from 1999.
Reverting to design from 1999 probably only cost Amazon a few hours of work as the page ended up being a hoax. All users had to do was click on the logo to get back to the present day site and resume their shopping. That means Amazon was able to pull off a notable and inexpensive prank that people are still talking about today. In fact, the prank even helped Amazon garner attention for a new product it released the prior day, the “Dash Button.”
3. Google: In Reverse
Another in a list of heavy-hitting internet companies switching their site to fool customers, Google decided to show all search results in reverse for one day.
So, on April 1, 2015, “elgooG” was found at “com.google” and showed all search results in reverse order. Given Google’s plethora of talented engineers, it likely cost Google very little to execute this prank — which is still talked about to this day.
4. Zappos: STFU
Put this on the list of things that should really exist. In 2015, Zappos released the new product STFU promising to save time from annoying conversations by enabling you to divert them to Zappos.
Capitalizing off of a clever acronym — and an actually useful idea — Zappos was able to go viral with a low-cost prank. Plus, the prank called attention in the most subtle of ways to what is their renowned customer service team. This is a perfect example of using April Fools’ Day to start a viral campaign and remind people how great your service is.
5. HelloSign: Avian
Speaking of using your in-house talent to create the perfect April Fools’ campaign, HelloSign used their excellent design team and witty content creators to come up with HelloSign Avian: a whole new way to send and receive signatures.
Hearkening to Amazon’s throwback site and Google’s reverse search, HelloSign crafted a campaign that relates to their service offerings in a way that reminds customers how much better their present day offerings really are: They pretended to offer a service for signing documents where they would send birds with the papers needing to be signed. Cute as an emu might be, I think we can all agree that it’s not the best way to send or receive anything. With just the cost of a few days time by the design and content teams, HelloSign’s April Fools’ prank even earned them a mention in TechCrunch — free publicity.