The Art of Lying On Purpose

It’s the day after the day before which means that with the passage of April Fool’s some of us will be wondering just why it is so easy to prank us sometimes and others will be left thinking on how they too need to come up with some elaborate prank next year. 

Irrespective of its origin, which is uncertain, April Fool’s in the modern age presents us with a conundrum. How can lying on purpose be considered to be OK, when lying is wrong and why being tricked is fine but being duped gets our hackles up? 

I have a theory about this that’s very close to why we enjoy being frightened. Halloween, scary movies and ‘life-threatening’ roller-coaster rides provide a thrill because they are a drill. The brain processes the signals and understands they are false and therefore we are safe. The situation then acts as a calibration of sorts for our inner frightening situation detector.

Because the sensations of what we experience when we are frightened are real, by decoding them correctly and understanding that we are safe, not only do we get to enjoy the thrill of the horrifying experience but we also get to safely train ourselves at dealing with it. 

It’s the same with lying. Lies, in real life can destroy lives, ruin careers and undermine trust in the relationships that underpin our social constructs. They can, in short, destroy everything we strive to build in our social collectivity. Because being able to spot lying is every bit as important in being able to spot a horrifying situation, we have, over centuries, created elaborate rituals where we can safely drill those skills. 

April Fool’s is such a drill and, just like the ‘rickety’ roller-coaster you ride, has been made to appear rickety on purpose, it is founded on a set of understood, unwritten laws that make it work. The problem is they are unwritten and they are understood which means they can be transgressed. 

When marketing company Boogie came out with an April Fool’s prank called Chute (an app that will stop your smartphone from shattering if it is dropped) the science, behind it was just this side of plausibility and our desire for it, has certainly never been stronger. 

Boogie, like Google and Honda who announced their smartbox and selfie car, respectively (see videos below) hoped to capitalize on the slickness of a tech presentation to create a viral marketing buzz around its brand.

The thing is Boogie forgot the cardinal rules and ran into some real problems as its April Fool’s backfired.

With critics piling up, people being angry across social media and the Boogie brand being tarnished and CEO, Jacques Bastien, trying to repair the damage it is interesting to see where (and why) things went wrong. 

The principal thing about fake lying is that it’s just like Halloween: you can put a heck of an effort into your scary costume but it has to be evident that it’s a costume, otherwise it’s a little creepy. Boogie forgot that spending months to lie convincingly and pulling out all stops to make it work is actual lying, rather than fake lying and the joke then is not on those who were duped but on those who went ahead and …erm, lied. 

What It Takes To Make a Great Fake Lie

The April Fool’s formula is pretty straightforward:

  • The lie has to be plausible. Whether you deliver it straight-faced or use a slick video presentation like Honda did, it has to follow the expected tropes of the practice and present a complexity that will hit all the right technical notes but fail to pass close scrutiny.
  • You can’t over-invest. What generates trust, generally, is a sense that the other party has invested so much that to be caught in a lie would be catastrophic. By investing the bare minimum of time and effort companies that pull April Fool’s pranks send a message that it’s, well, a prank. The slickness you present then when you lie (the YouTube video, the blog post or the Halloween costume) is a testament to your skills and ingenuity (a positive) rather than a mark for your ability to lie well. When Boogie put in a team of sorts into the marketing of its fake product they behaved like it was real and presented it to the world that way.
  • Stay within the boundaries. April Fool’s is a one-day thing. Just like Halloween, horror films and roller-coaster rides it has clearly marked boundaries that create a safe environment which allows the willing, suspension of disbelief to take place and the prank to be enjoyed. Boogie spent months in the build of its publicity and marketing of a non-existent app. It basically broke the rules, flouted convention and instead of pranking its audience went about systematically duping them.
  • It has to be make-believe. No one really thinks that a roller-coaster will kill them. A horror film is not a documentary. Halloween is not the night when zombies and vampires walk the Earth and April Fool’s is not about making people really believe a fake anything, exists.

It’s easy enough to remember. 

And just in case you were wondering yes, even yours truly, took part in a prank – totally hard to do with a straight face and Nike did give the game away with her indifference to it all.


Related Posts

What Does it Mean to Be Authentic?
How the Media Manipulates You
How Marketing Can Be Manipulative

Further Reading

Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?
Why Do People Love to Be Scared?
The Psychology Behind April fool’s Pranks
April Fool’s The Best and Worst Pranks from Around the Web