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Significant Stats: April Fools' Day, An Unpopular Holiday of Declining Relevance.
Why does April Fools' exist? And how many pranks occur each year?
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April Fools’ Day: The Silliest of Holidays.
Today is the first day of April, which means it's one of the most bizarre days of the year: April Fools’ Day. Personally, I'm not much of an April Fools’ fan — I don't enjoy pranking or being pranked. Still, I've always wanted to better understand this peculiar holiday. Why does this day exist (and why do we call it a holiday in the first place)? Do other people dislike April Fools’ Day, or am I just grumpy? And how widespread is this (debatably enjoyable) tradition?
April Fools’: A Tradition of Unknown Origin.
There is no definitive accounting of how April Fools’ Day came into being. I always assumed Hallmark or some other corporate entity created the holiday, but after some research, I found April Fools’ origin to be both ancient and unclear.
There are a handful of prominent theories regarding the holiday's roots, some of which include:
Changing to the Gregorian Calendar: One popular theory suggests that April Fools’ can be traced to the late 16th century when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Previously, New Year's Day was celebrated at the beginning of April, but the calendar change moved the New Year to January 1st. Some people didn't get the news or didn't adapt to the new date, and they continued celebrating New Year's in April. They were mocked as "fools" and became the target of widespread ridicule. So apparently, we commemorate these idiots annually by pranking one another.
"The Canterbury Tales": Released in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer's massively popular "Canterbury Tales" features a rooster named Chauntecleer who is tricked into believing that there is a March 32nd (also known as April 1st). Some scholars believe this may have seeded the notion of April Fools’, though this feels like a stretch.
The Medieval Feast of Fools: Yet another theory links April Fools’ Day to the medieval Feast of Fools, a festival celebrated in Europe around the 5th century. The event involved electing a "Lord of Misrule" who would preside over a day of revelry, including pranks, jokes, and general disorder.
These theories represent a small sample of April Fools’ origin stories. It seems that there is little to no concrete evidence of the holiday's inception.
How Many Pranks Occur on April Fools’ Day?
April Fools’ Day is a surprisingly global holiday, as various nations maintain unique cultural customs to celebrate the occasion. In North America, pranksters observe April Fools’ through run-of-the-mill practical jokes. In the UK, tradition dictates that prankers are required to carry out their antics before noon. And in France and Italy, a common trick involves attaching a paper fish to someone's back without them noticing (which sounds kinda lame).
I wanted to quantify the scale of April Fools’, so I embarked upon a market sizing to conceptualize the extent of tomfoolery. According to a 2017 survey from YouGov, 15% of Americans reported having been pranked on April Fools’ Day:
We can take the above-mentioned prank percentage and cross-reference this statistic with a range of options for the average number of individuals pranked per trick (i.e. were five people pranked at school or were 10,000 people “pranked” via a corporate social media campaign). Then, using these factors, we can generate estimates for April Fools’ Day prank volume in the United States:
Generating a range of outcomes from our most likely parameters, our projections for April Fools’ Day joke volume fall between 37,500 and 5,633,000 pranks.
We can then change our population parameters to develop a projection for global prank volume:
According to our sizing model, somewhere between 678,900 and 113,160,000 pranks occur globally on April Fools’ Day. That's a lot of global buffoonery.
April Fools’: A Highly Unpopular Holiday.
What makes a holiday popular? Good food? Good company? Not being the object of ridicule? Unsurprisingly, Americans value their dignity and, therefore, are not fond of April Fools’.
A 2022 survey of Americans found April Fools’ Day to be the 16th most popular holiday:
April Fools’ even placed behind holidays observed by smaller sets of the population, like Hannukah.
Corporations Loved (And Ruined?) April Fools’ Day.
The rise of social media spawned a proliferation of April Fools’ pranks, as jokesters gained the ability to deceive thousands at scale. While many of these pranks backfire, leading to a growing backlash against April Fools’, there is an entertaining history of corporate tricks gone wrong (or right, depending on your interpretation). Some of my personal favorites include:
The Taco Liberty Bell: In 1996, Taco Bell announced that they had purchased the Liberty Bell and renamed it the "Taco Liberty Bell." People were outraged, and the National Park Service, which manages the Liberty Bell, received numerous calls from concerned citizens. Taco Bell later donated $50,000 to the upkeep of the Liberty Bell to atone for its deception.
The Swiss spaghetti harvest: In 1957, the BBC television program "Panorama" broadcast a segment about a supposed "spaghetti harvest" in Switzerland, showing people picking spaghetti strands from trees. Many viewers believed the report and contacted the BBC to ask how they could grow spaghetti trees.
The left-handed Whopper: In 1998, Burger King published an advertisement announcing a "Left-Handed Whopper," claiming the condiments were rotated 180 degrees to accommodate southpaws. Many people attempted to order the new burger, while others requested the "right-handed" version.
April Fools’ Day must be an exciting day for corporate marketing teams everywhere.
Is April Fools’ Declining in Cultural Relevance?
To recap, April Fools’ is a highly unpopular holiday of unknown origin, with a high volume of pranks punctuated by the growing dominance of corporate PR stunts that are either too lame or deceptive to appreciate (though I'll admit my synopsis is biased). So how have these trends impacted observance and enthusiasm for the holiday in recent years?
Google is the internet's central nervous system and id. So if you want to understand the world's collective hive mind, Google is a solid starting point. Not long ago, I would mark my personal April Fools’ celebration with a quick Google search to digest the best and worst pranks of the day. But now I largely ignore the holiday.
Am I the norm, or is April Fools’ relevance on the decline? Google Trends allow us to track relative search term volumes since 2004. So if we compare "April Fools’ Day" search traffic to its 2004 baseline, we can track search fluctuations over time:
Starting in 2007, we observe a relative increase in April Fools’ search interest, likely driven by the rise of social media, with query volumes hovering above baseline from 2007 to 2015. And then 2016 happens, as a fateful presidential election suddenly recontextualizes the meaning of April Fools’ Day.
The 2016 American presidential election, and its fallout, crystallized several growing cultural trends that impacted the perception of April Fools’ Day.
The term "fake news" explodes into the zeitgeist. Subsequent awareness of misinformation campaigns galvanizes public opinion on the harms of sharing unverified information. It turns out April Fools’ was the original "fake news."
People begin questioning the role of social media in societal discourse and its propensity to misinform the population. After several years of largely unbridled social media antics, corporations begin to experience growing backlash for perpetrating poorly executed or offensive April Fools’ stunts.
Final Thoughts: Is This the End of April Fools’?
April Fools’ Day is a holiday without a concrete cultural foundation. It's not a religious holiday like Christmas or Ramadan. It's not a national holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. It's not even a bank holiday or a school holiday. Instead, April Fools’ is a holiday where people go about their typical day with the looming threat of deception and misinformation hanging over their heads.
Holidays can go extinct. Several widespread celebrations have either died or significantly diminished in prominence over time. Have you heard of Saturnalia, Lupercalia, or Twelfth Night? Of course you haven't because they are dead holidays.
April Fools’ may reinvent itself, adapting to growing awareness of fake news and misinformation, or April Fools’ may prove too antiquated to endure, gradually fading into the annals of history (much like its origin).
Whatever the case, we hope you have a happy April Fools’ Day! Stay safe out there, and be on the lookout for unruly mischief.
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