Of the top 25 companies by market capitalization, only two release visible April Fools’ jokes on behalf of their parent brands every year. Both of them are tech companies.
The mystery isn’t where the tech industry’s gag obsession comes from, it’s why it hasn’t stopped. Many tech companies are (relatively) young and have held on to the early underdog ethos which a small, insurgent, 2000-era Google can rightly claim to embody. But Google, like Microsoft before it, has become one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world. Google is as far from an underdog as a company can legally get. Yet they still supply April Fools’ jokes, and their customers still indulge them.
The other companies on this chart wouldn’t dream of doing general-audience April Fools’ jokes, not least because it seems unlikely that Americans would find an Exxon Mobil prank very funny. Procter & Gamble did release at least one joke, through its Scope mouthwash brand, while Diet Coke defied the orders of the MOTHER BRAND with a barely shared tweet. Novartis took the opportunity to make a PSA about breast cancer. But none approached the production value or visibility of Google’s pranks, nor were they presented on behalf of their entire companies, as Google’s were.
Americans have a begrudging, if not antagonistic, relationship with our largest corporations — unless, apparently, they sell technology. Granted, companies like Google and Microsoft interact with their customers in a more direct way than other megacoporations (in the course of a day I interact with Google — and in a very direct way, its brand — dozens of times. I’m far less aware of my interactions with Procter & Gamble). And with famous executives and relatively small product lines, they present a recognizable identity to a typical customer. Perhaps that’s why we’re more accepting of clever but vaguely apocalyptic jokes from profit-motivated organizations with revenues higher than many small countries.
But that doesn’t mean we should be. These are massive, and massively powerful, corporations, which have leverage over us in a way that they didn’t as upstart underdogs. They are companies to be monitored and regulated with vigilance and regarded with skepticism; they’re inherently incapable of laughing with us because they are no longer in any way like us.
Whimsical jokes by the extremely powerful can (and should!) take on a sinister overtone (see: Army.mil’s “cats as soldiers” gag).
Here, via OpenSecrets, is a chart of Google’s lobbying spending since 2003:
Here’s the prank Google published in 2004 (the companies skipped 2003):
And here’s one the company published today:
Once reaching a certain astronomical size, tech companies should fully embrace their new identities as faceless, inhuman conglomerates.
A friendly joke from a tiny company that wants to change the world is charming or even inspiring; the same joke from a company that runs the world is worse than advertising — it feels like propaganda.