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04 April 2018

April Fool?



April Fool’s Day has a long history; at least, some believe so. English Literature graduates will no doubt recall the reference in Chaucer (“The Nun’s and Priest’s Tale”), although some of them will probably dispute the actual meaning of Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two - is it thirty-two days from the beginning of March, or the end? Whatever, it’s something common across many European countries, under various manifestations. In France they refer to the poisson d’avril, but everywhere, the principle is the same; a trick or prank played on someone, who is then the ‘fool’. Newspapers, radio and the TV have got into the act as well, most of them broadcasting or printing something that leaves readers or listeners not quite sure if what they are seeing is true or a spoof. There was a well-known example broadcast by the BBC in the 1950s or 1960s which has often been quoted, where they mocked up a report that managed to persuade about half the population that spaghetti grew on trees, and was harvested annually by Italian farmers. This year, I saw a small piece in one of the papers announcing that from now on, all EU passports would be coloured blue, not red. That’s a sort of niche joke for Brexit Britain, but it made me smile.

It’s all good natured stuff these days, though, a chance to lighten up the news reporting.

But what if it goes wrong? What if people actually believe the spoof, rather than being uncertain? That could have serious consequences. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, put out a couple of April Fool’s Day tweets this year, the first stating that Tesla had gone bankrupt, and the second containing a picture of him slumped against the side of one of the cars, surrounded by empty bottles. Now, 1st April this year was a Sunday, but the following day, while a public holiday in the UK and parts of Europe, was not a holiday in the US and the Tesla share price - which has been relatively weak already for a while - suffered as investors struggled to grasp what was going on, and quite a few jumped. Musk is unquestionably very smart and he probably doesn’t care too much about the short-term share price movement, but in fact the company has been going through a bad spell, so maybe the timing was dubious. Somebody died in an accident linked to the self-drive “autopilot” function on one of the cars - which is currently under investigation - and they are still running quite far behind their production schedule. But they can probably wear the issues. Indeed, the following day the share price rallied again, and the latest production figures (released a couple of days after the April Fool) show a marked improvement. Musk was on reasonably strong ground.

On the other hand, sometimes these things do genuinely backfire. Remember Ratners, the high street jeweller? Gerald Ratner told a gathering that in his view some of the products his company sold were not terribly good (although he phrased it a tad more earthily than that); this wasn’t actually an April Fool, but the fallout was pretty swift and the cost enormous.

Elon Musk doesn’t need advice from me; but whoever you are, it’s always worth remembering that things can very quickly spiral out of control, and one man’s joke is another man’s sell signal……   

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