The most foolish day of the year
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, April Fools’ jokes in the media show no signs of going anywhere. REBECCA DAVIS had a peek at this year’s round of gags.
In a post on 1 April this year, media blogger John L Robinson suggested that April Fools’ jokes in the media are not just unfunny but “always a bad idea”. Robinson wrote that readers resent being made to look like fools, if they believe the prank, and asked “Why would a newspaper want to violate its core value of telling the truth?”
The answer to that is: because when April Fools’ jokes are very good, they actually enhance a publication’s reputation. This is particularly the case when the outlet in question has a reputation for being rather staid and conservative.
Probably the most glorious April Fools’ joke of all time was the BBC’s Swiss Spaghetti Harvest prank of 1957, held to be the first ever televised April Fool’s gag. On that occasion news show Panorama ran a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, including footage of a family harvesting spaghetti off trees. The BBC was deluged by people phoning in to ask how to grow their own spaghetti tree – apparently fooled because in 1957 pasta was still an exotic dish in the UK.
Some of the most impressive April Fools’ pranks of the past have owed their greatness to their elaborate scope. In 1977, the Guardian devoted no less than seven pages to a travel story about the islands of San Seriffe (shaped like semi-colons). So idyllic did the paper make the islands sound that they, too, received countless calls from people demanding to know more about how to book a trip.
But it was all an outrageously nerdy joke about printers’ terminology – all the islands’ towns were named after fonts, and the national bird was the Kwote. The Guardian even got advertisers to play along: Kodak took out a large ad saying ‘If you’ve got a photograph of San Seriffe, Kodak would like to see it’.
The best April Fools’ jokes are those which most skilfully navigate the line between plausibility and absurdity. Indeed, there have been multiple examples of April Fools’ jokes that have subsequently become reality – the UK Independent yesterday ran a feature on some of these, ranging from self-cleaning cars to commercial space flights.
It says more about South Africa’s current political landscape than the skilfulness of its April Fools’ jokes, however, that many social media users seemed to find it difficult to tell which of Sunday’s stories in the South African media were pranks and which were serious. City Press ran a story about a young white male who is Julius Malema’s protégé, which could easily have been read as satire.
In reality, their joke was a second-page story taking advantage of last week’s storm in a teacup over the selling of halaal-marked hot cross buns, claiming that Woolworths were manufacturing spicy buns with crescents and Stars of David. “The Hindu, Bahai and Atheist societies said they would be marching on Woolworths Cape Town head office tomorrow to ensure their buns were in the oven too,” reporter “Olaf April” wrote. Eyewitness News also ran with the hot-cross bun angle, to their detriment, since their idea was less funny than City Press’s: they reported that the buns were being pulled from South African supermarkets a week before Easter.
The Weekend Argus went with a picture-dependant gag purporting to show travellers dismounting from the inaugural flight of Eastern European airline “Areofloat”. What made the airplane unlikely was the photograph showing a jet bobbing in the ocean: the claim was that Aerofloat was an airline whose unique selling point was that they landed in the water and passengers then had to wade to shore. Oddly, this was pretty much the same joke used by airline Kulula this year: they claimed on Sunday that to combat traffic congestion in airports, they would start landing on water runways.
The Sunday Sun experienced a burst of paternalistic protectiveness over their readers. Under the headline ‘Don’t let them fool you today!’, the paper explained what April Fools’ Day was and wrote: “Many newspapers (not the People’s Paper!) catch their readers out with funny, bogus news stories”. In fairness, the task of distinguishing an April Fools’ story from the rest of the tabloid’s usual content would be difficult.
The English newspapers’ spoofs were tame – and lame – to the point of inducing either yawns or groans. The Daily Mail went with a claim that the government was introducing an environmental tax on chilled champagne. The Sun claimed football team Arsenal was launching a perfume which smelled like Emirates Stadium, including “a whiff of oils in the players’ massage area, the fresh-cut pitch and leather from boss Arsene Wenger’s dugout seat”. The Observer alleged that the leader singer of pop group the Happy Mondays, Shaun Ryder, was to be employed to advise the ruling Conservative Party on how to better handle issues of class in the UK.
And it wasn’t just newspapers pranking the public this year – increasingly it seems that corporations want in on the fun, too. YouTube had a particularly good joke, claiming they were releasing every YouTube video ever uploaded as part of a DVD collection. Although the viewing experience would take place offline, their promotional video noted, interactivity would still be retained: the DVD collection was sold with stamped envelopes allowing you to post your video comments to the video’s creator.
Air New Zealand took to social media to announce that it was fitting out its aircraft with ceiling-mounted hand straps to boost capacity by carrying an extra 69 people standing. Virgin poked fun at both the recent submarine voyage by director James Cameron and the adventurous exploits of their CEO Richard Branson, announcing that Branson was “to launch journeys to the centre of the Earth through Virgin Volcanic”. Car manufacturers Mini took out newspaper advertisements to claim it was now selling the Mini Countryman one piece at a time, as part of a “unique 29, 762 part series”, starting with a tiny screw.
Closer to home, iconic Cape Town cinema The Labia caused a stir with its announcement about Sunday’s programming: “Our 70's classic porn series continues today with Deep Throat matinee at 2pm. Seniors discount with cocktail slushie and aircon working.”
Top marks have to be given to Google, however, which went balls-to-the-wall this year with the announcement of no less than 11 individual product pranks. Google Street Roo is mapping Australia by strapping cameras to the heads of kangaroos, it said. Gmail Tap will allow you to send Morse Code emails, using only two keys. Really Advanced Search takes the search engine’s capabilities up a notch, the company promised, allowing you to search by criteria like rhyming slang, font, word origins, embarrassing grammatical faux pas, and even whether the content was true. And the tech giant is branching out: it announced the launch of Google Fiber, health bars for snacking on.
The Nigerian government, however, may not be laughing along with the rest of the world at one of Google’s April Fools’ jokes. Yesterday saw the launch of Nigerian Google. When users enter the URL, a warning message pops up to the effect that the website is a likely “phishing site”. If you opt to continue regardless, you are taken to a Google screen where, instead of a search term, you enter your bank account number and then click “Search for inheritance” – parodying the country’s association with internet scams. At the time of writing, there hadn’t been any official Nigerian response. DM