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Fools log in: Google leads the pack in April gags

April 6, 2009

Several years ago, on April 1, I left a voicemail message for a friend of mine that set the ball rolling. With a slightly disguised voice, I told him I was calling from his credit card company's security division and that we had noticed some odd charges on his account and could he please call us back as soon as possible? I left the contact phone number from a real credit card company.

Months later, the subject came up. He was telling the story to some mutual friends about the weird call and the hours he spent on the phone trying to get to the bottom of it. "I got a call from you that you noted some strange charges on my account," he said. "Sir," they repeatedly replied, "I can't even find an account with your name on it." It was an April Fool's joke that seemed humorous then, but in this era of identity theft, is strikingly unfunny now.

Still, every year, as the first of April rolls around, there are people—and companies—everywhere scheming to take advantage of the gullible. In fact, some of these companies are well known. Google (www.google.com), for example, seems to revel in the Fool's Day merriment. In the past several years, it's spent some time and effort to convince people that it's been pursuing all manner of intriguing strategies, all on or around April 1, only a few of which have been true (more on that later).

It seemed to have all started back in April 2000, when it announced a new search technology called MentalPlex. The interesting thing about MentalPlex is that it would read the user's mind to determine the best possible search results, thereby eliminating the need for you to actually type in what you were looking for. In 2004, Google announced several job opportunities available at their research center located ... on the moon. April 2005 saw the release of a fictitious drink called Google Gulp, ostensibly improving the intelligence of the imbiber and thereby optimizing his or her search-engine results. It was available in four flavors (like Beta Carroty and Sugar-free Radicals) and was available for free, but only by returning a Google Gulp bottle cap to a local grocery store. (A causal loop that parodied their newly released invitation-only Gmail service.)

Gmail Paper was announced in 2007, trumpeting a service whereby users could elect to add an e-mail to a "paper archive" and Google would print the e-mail on "96-percent post-consumer organic soybean sputum" and mail it by way of the postal service. The free service was said to be supported by ads printed in bold red ink on the reverse of the messages.

But 2008 was a banner year, with several new product launches revolving around the unofficial holiday. These included AdSense for conversations, allowing advertising messages related to your conversations to be instantly displayed on a screen above your head; gDay, an Australian-based search engine where pages are indexed 24 hours before they're created; Google Manpower Search, which harnesses the power of 25 million Chinese volunteers who will manually search through a mass of paper documents as well as online resources; and several others. But the best was Gmail Custom Time, which allowed users to "pre-date" their messages or have their messages appear as read or unread, enabling even past deadlines to be "met." The product slogan was "Be on time. Every time." (Lest you think it went overboard, the service limited each user to 10 pre-dated messages a year, claiming that more would "cause people to lose faith in the accuracy of time, thus rendering the feature useless.")

The trick for a successful prank, of course, lies in how real you can make the absurd seem. And Google, of all companies, seems to understand the power of the Internet to spread news virally. It's for this reason that it's chosen to release some very real products on April 1, including Gmail back in 2004. At the time, announcing a free e-mail service offering one gigabyte of storage was unheard of, and Google used the power of an "unreal" product offering to spread the word quickly about something that was, in fact, a real product.

And so it was, with all of this in mind, that I happened upon a story recently that I just can't quite believe, but also can't quite discount entirely. Swedish giant IKEA (www.ikea.com) has announced LEKO, an environmentally friendly car said to be debuting on April 1. An official-looking French Web site (http:// www.roulez-leko.com/) has surfaced purporting to offer some snippets about the soon-to-be-announced concept car. The video on the site describes the LEKO as modular, capable of being either a coupe or convertible. It also claims that the car enjoys the full support of the World Wildlife Foundation.

I'm leaning toward a viral campaign announcing some sort of product (though not likely to be a real, assemble-yourself car) coinciding with April Fool's day. But, as Fast Company points out in a short article about the apparent concept car, you never know ... After all, April 1-7 is France's Sustainable Development Week, and IKEA already offers "kit homes" shipped in flat packs to customers in Northern England and Scandinavia.

By the time you read this, we'll already know what Google, IKEA and other companies have up their sleeves for the huckster holiday this year. But I have to admit, as I'm writing this with a few days to go, I'm looking forward to finding out.
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Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

 

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