Have you noticed that holiday marketing for brands has become an ‘always-on’ affair? This year I made note that Valentine’s Day candy overlapped with Christmas and New Year’s in our local shops.

Human attention is a finite resource, and its scarcity is what causes this elongation: where one-day events become buildup campaigns, and eventually turn into seasons.

Thanks to algorithmic feeds, the easiest way to stand out from the crowd is to begin marketing campaigns earlier… **and earlier… and earlier. The campaigns also seem to be leaning deeper into “iykyk” cultural references, continuing the meta-trend of trends and culturally-relevant marketing that adds lore and depth to a brand story.

Goodbye, April Fool’s Day. Welcome to April Fool’s Season.

The Big Stretch

A wild departure from other sales holidays where the goal is to move merchandise, April Fool’s is a pure brand lift and share-of-voice holiday.

April Fool’s isn’t the first holiday to be extended by brands; but it’s fundamentally different in two ways: 1) the goal of an activation or announcement is usually meant to generate earned media, and 2) a brand has the ability to test collaborations that might otherwise appear out of place.

Contrast that with sales holidays that seem to be elongating: namely, BFCM. Over the past twenty years, Black Friday went from a single-day doorbuster sales event at physical retailers to a four-day weekend event across digital retailers. Today, marketers begin “BFCM” deals earlier and earlier each year; so much so, that BFCM is encroaching on fall sales campaigns like Amazon’s Prime Day.

Prior to the pandemic, the official start to Black Friday was unofficially recognized as Single’s Day (November 11th, or, 11/11). In 2023, Fall Prime Day fell on October 10th. Techradar predicts that 2024’s Prime Day could be as early as October 8th.

April Fool’s is no different. This year it began on March 27th with the announcement of Sour Patch Adults.

Brands have more media to manage than ever before. For brand marketers, April Fool’s coordination has to happen in the 70-day window between New Year’s and Spring Break. Where fooling season falls on the calendar contributes to the non-transactional, hyperbolic creative nature of an April Fool’s Day campaign.

Hasty designs, bad creative, and unimaginative launches have become the norm; as have marketers deriding the tradition.

Curiously, the brand tradition has its roots in commerce and media literacy.

Footage of the 1957 Panorama/BBC “Spaghetti Tree Hoax”. Photo credit: Pasta Foods; BBC.

The First April Fool’s Brand Campaign: Commerce is Culture

On April 1st, 1957, the BBC broadcast a three-minute segment on their weekly serial, Panorama. The hoax informed viewers of a bountiful ‘spaghetti crop’ harvest, which featured footage of a staged Harvest Festival celebrating the disappearance of the fictitious “spaghetti weevil.”

Scenes in the hoax broadcast were filmed at the Pasta Foods factory on London Road—a consumer brand—which contributed to the realism for the English consumer. At the time, spaghetti in the UK was primarily consumed in canned form; traditional spaghetti in tomato sauce.

A relatively exotic food in 1950s England, spaghetti was a delicacy that enjoyed a brief spotlight thanks to the earned media in the hoax. Contributing to the consumer confusion was the choice to include renowned journalist and war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby, as the narrator of the news story.

This contains the same four criteria for relevancy in the first Google Suggest algorithm, which we covered in-depth in our Archetypes Journal, and our seminal essay What Are These Strawberries Doing on My Nipples?

Those criteria are:

  • Products for sale or manufacture by a brand
  • Celebrities or notable figures
  • Legacy media outlets
  • Education or curiosity interest content

In our seminal essay, we covered the 2008 launch of Google Suggest, the feature that turned Google’s search feature of autocompletion into a rabbit hole of suggested terms and content discovery. On the day of launch, a search for “what are these” yielded unexpected results, like the title of collected works by sex advice columnist, Vanessa Feltz; who was also a personality that starred in evening programmes on the BBC.

This is why brand campaigns work so well during April Fool’s. Our connection to a cultural moment is uniquely expressed through items that we can seek out, purchase, and possess. To own the e.l.f. x Liquid Death palette is to own a souvenir of a brand moment.

A mainstay personality on the BBC for early morning shows, and other British programming throughout the 1990s, What are these Strawberries… made Feltz a published author in 1994. Strawberries was a 256-page collection of offbeat, sometimes satirical, sex advice from the would-be advice columnist for SHE Magazine.

Commerce, it seems, was part of the authoritative criteria for persuading consumers. As true in 1957 as it is today—first through mass media, then through algorithmic weighted biases.

What has changed most—more brands are fighting for earned media than ever before.

Pictured: Sour Patch Kids’ April Fool’s campaign. Via X/Twitter. Credit: Sour Patch Kids / Mondelez

Hot Dog Flavored Water

In 2024, three brands created culturally-relevant in-jokes with their launches. Notably, all three of them also launched their campaigns earlier than Monday, April 1st. They were:

What is unique and interesting is the media literacy and cultural knowledge that a consumer would need to fully understand and appreciate the activations.

We have never before seen such trust between brand and consumer. Online discourse and memes allow consumers to explain the reference to each other, and to create supporting content.

Pictured: the campaign launch photo of the faux seltzer product. Image credit: 7-Eleven and PopCraft.

7-Eleven’s campaign is the edgiest of the bunch, with its not-so-veiled reference to Limp Bizkit’s album titled Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water (2000). What’s most intriguing about Liquid Death is the obvious KISS makeup reference which walks a fine line with the legal departments (the KISS makeup designs are trademarked and fiercely defended.)

Sour Patch Kids take a swipe at cancel culture with their clever apology letter, using words like “regret” and “thank you for your patience” harkens back to the summer of 2020, when consumers were engaged in multiplayer dynamics, both canceling and calling out brands.

This is a demonstration of how brands are becoming increasingly savvy in targeting their marketing to specific generational cohorts while also leveraging cultural in-jokes and references. Who wants to grow up? Gross.

Earned Media + Generational Marketing

These campaigns aren't just about humor or shock value, they're about creating a shared experience that resonates within a specific context. They tap into nostalgia, cultural touchpoints, and generational experiences, turning them into a unique brand story that goes beyond traditional product marketing.

Three varied campaigns; one commonality:  generational marketing. While GenX is best poised to grok the Liquid Death and the 7-Eleven Campaigns, it’s Millennials and GenZ who would buy the (now sold out) e.l.f. Beauty x Liquid Death product release.

Oh, yes. Corpse Paint—that’s real. Exactly the unexpected twist from your favorite heavy metal canned water brand that you’ve…curiously…come to expect.

Human attention might be finite. But the brands, they’ll just keep coming; and they’ll keep fighting to earn our (evermore scarce) attention.