Sometime around April Fools’ Day, I saw a story in The Washington Post that said Volkswagen of America was going to change its name to Voltswagen to reflect its commitment to electric cars.
The story was based on an announcement on the VW website, which quickly disappeared, only to be confirmed later in a VW press release, which also disappeared.
When I saw the story I said to myself, “Uh oh. Some editor and some reporter at the Post and someone at VW are about to have a very bad day.” The whole thing didn’t pass the most basic sniff test.
Turns out it was an April Fools’ Day prank.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Only six years ago, the Post wrote in its mea culpa, VW lost all its credibility, and a lot of money, in an emissions scandal involving rigged diesel emissions tests.
Paul Argenti, who teaches corporate communications at Dartmouth College, told the Post, “Goofing around about who it is and what it’s trying to do, particularly with anything related to sustainability, strikes me as really, really bad taste. It’s terrible.”
I’ve never thought April Fools’ jokes devised by anyone over 5 years old were funny. And I learned the hard way early on in my newspaper career how what seems cute and clever and harmless can suddenly go very sideways.
There’s a long history of news organizations succumbing to the temptations of April Fools’ satire. One of the more infamous was a BBC television piece in 1957. The news clip showed spaghetti farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees.
Viewers never imagined the venerable BBC would mess with their heads. By the hundreds, they wrote in to ask how they could cultivate a spaghetti tree of their own. The BBC had trained viewers to trust them. So fooling them was easy.
Early in my career I was a beat reporter at The Times Record in Brunswick. It was a respectable paper then, with an editor who had worked at The New York Times.
Five days a week it was a tough, hard-hitting paper read by everyone in town. But, like lots of publications, on April Fools’ Day it couldn’t resist a spoof issue. An editor asked me to contribute something funny. I did.
Sounded fun to my inexperienced ears, and it was fun – until that something turned out to be a phony story about a major national outdoor retailer being bought out by a major department store chain with a K in the name. (I’m trying not to piss anyone off, lest history repeats itself.)
As I remember, my story ran beside a bunch of other made-up stories in a separate section of the newspaper. And it hit a nerve.
Nearly as soon as the paper hit the streets, I got called up to the editor’s desk. He, or perhaps it was the publisher, had received a call from a top executive at the major national outdoor retailer. The executive had read the story and was not amused.
I was ordered by the editor to drive down to the local corporate headquarters of the major national outdoor retailer and meet with the executive to apologize. I did. It was not pleasant.
When I returned to the office, the editors were still cleaning up the mess. One of them said to me, “Satire is a very difficult thing to pull off. Those who aren’t good at it shouldn’t try it.”
This struck me as a little odd since it was the editors who had asked a very young reporter to write the story and the editors who had edited the stories in the section and the editors who had sent it to be printed with their blessing.
And I was the one being thrown under the bus?
Also, I thought, news organizations spend every other day of the year trying to be serious and independent and credible, and then all of a sudden because someone somewhere centuries ago thought up April Fools’ Day we basically say, “Fooled ya, suckers!”
Being suckered is not likely to sit well with readers.
Of course, because of the trust they have nurtured, news organizations have a unique opportunity to pull off an April Fools’ satire. Like parents with kids, they’ve trained consumers to trust them.
Needless to say, when I ran my own newsroom we didn’t observe April Fools’ Day.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.