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April Fools’ Day will see more online advertisers vying for laughs

WestJet will have a hard time topping its 2012 April Fools’ gag in which it offered to put kids in the cargo bay so parents could enjoy a quiet flight.

Do you enjoy lies and badly executed humour? Have we got the day for you.

Yes, just like tax season, April Fools' Day has rolled around again and caused dismayed citizens to wonder: "Didn't we just go through this?"

Many marketers, however, see it as a chance to participate in some innocuous shenanigans, to show their fun side, and perhaps even to create some goodwill that consumers will remember the next time they pull out their wallets.

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The phenomenon is not just a product of the Internet: Companies used to send out fake news releases on April 1, and occasionally purchased fake ads (which is how the hoax about Taco Bell buying the Liberty Bell spread in 1996).

Since the rise of social media, however, the online currency for advertisers is conversation. Videos that people share on Facebook, or jokes that others pass on via Twitter, are not just free publicity – they are valuable because consumers are doing the marketing on a brand's behalf.

As a consequence, April 1 has become even more cluttered with brands trying to get noticed.

Last year, Domino's Pizza Inc. unveiled the "Edibox" made of crust; Procter & Gamble Co.'s Scope promoted bacon-flavoured mouthwash; and Frito-Lay North America Inc. launched Cheeteau, a perfume for those who love the smell of Cheetos. (Yuck.) In 2013, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. advertised the "skinny skinny" jean (denim-coloured body paint). The following year, comedian Jimmy Kimmel mocked Lululemon Athletica Inc. for how tight its yoga pants are, suggesting its next product would be spray-on pants. The Vancouver-based company responded by creating a page in its online shop advertising the product for April Fools'. Google Inc. produces so many hoaxes each year it can be difficult to keep track.

And all of this is despite the fact that many people do not enjoy April 1 at all. Brandwatch, a company that tracks conversations on social media, recorded roughly 50,000 tweets mentioning April Fools' Day last year. Of those, three times as many tweets were negative versus positive.

This is a microcosm, of conversations on Twitter only. But at the best of times, so many brands online are intruding in the conversation, making limp jokes, and trying unsuccessfully to sound cool. Does it really do them any good to also dive in on a day that elicits eye-rolls and even animosity among so much of their audience?

Last year, Denny's Inc. was applauded online for differentiating itself from other brands with the tweet: "Prank idea: don't." But then, seemingly unable to help itself, the company caved and tweeted a series of lame prank ideas – attempting to seem above it all while still grasping for laughs.

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"Brands forget that they're held to a much higher standard than your crazy uncle at the dinner table who's trying to sound hip," said Ed Lee, senior director of social media at digital ad agency Tribal Worldwide Toronto.

That said, he has helped clients create content for April 1 this year. He believes marketers have a right to joke around, as long as they are genuinely funny and as long as it is a fit with the brand. (Banks? Probably not. Candy? Sure.)

WestJet Airlines Ltd. is a good example. From the beginning, its flight attendants have greeted passengers with corny jokes over the intercom during takeoff and landing; its social media presence is no different.

"We do it because it's an extension of our fun culture," said WestJet's public relations manager, Robert Palmer. "People like to do business with companies they like."

On Wednesday morning, it will promote its latest in a series of April 1 videos. Its most successful so far was in 2012 when the airline offered "Kargo Kids" service so parents could enjoy a quiet flight while their children travelled under supervision in the belly of the plane.

"Do we really need more wakka-wakka?" said Mitch Joel, president of Montreal-based digital agency Mirum. "Brands that are traditionally more playful can do April Fools', if there is that explicit relationship with the audience."

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The ultimate test is that the joke has to be good – especially since so many brands are vying for attention.

"It's hard to make significant noise," Mr. Joel said. "… When we go behind the curtain, we see the depth of budget and time spent against it, we see that it's highly orchestrated. Humour is a hard thing to pull off that way."

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