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scientist stands over foil-wrapped breakfast tacos in lab

How Fake Tacos Highlighted Real University Prowess

Sarah Steimer

scientist stands over foil-wrapped breakfast tacos in lab

An April Fool’s Day video from the University of Texas drew viewers in with an unexpected invention, then underscored the school’s accomplished faculty and top-tier facilities

Goal

Marketers love a good April Fool’s Day activation, and the trend isn’t relegated to well-known B2C brands. Higher education has gotten in on the joke, typically pulling pranks via fake announcements. In 2016, the University of Florida and Florida State University faked a merger, while Virginia Commonwealth University announced tattoos would be required for admission. This year’s April Fool’s holiday saw the University of Melbourne in Australia announcing that 3G and 4G mobile network signals would be permanently shut down across all campuses.

These pranks are usually an inexpensive way to elicit on-campus chuckles, but the University of Texas saw April Fool’s Day as an opportunity to hype its educational and research prowess—all by harnessing the power of great visual storytelling and the region’s love of breakfast tacos.

Action

Inspiration for the video came from a decidedly non-scholastic source: “Big Top Pee-wee,” the 1988 comedy film in which Pee-wee Herman grows a hot dog tree. Thomas Swafford, multimedia producer at the University of Texas, saw the school’s new $9 million greenhouse as the perfect staging area for such a fictional plant. But instead of hot dogs, he opted to put a local spin on the concept and have researchers grow breakfast tacos (fully intact, foil wrappers and all).

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The video didn’t just showcase the new greenhouse—Swafford shot other parts of campus and interviews with prominent UT professors and President Greg Fenves. The guiding principle for the team, which included digital content producer and managing editor Sara Robberson Lentz, was the overall UT marketing communications strategy.

University of Texas Austin president Greg Fenves

“That was the key, because it was funny but it really fit our strategy,” says J.B. Bird, director of media relations and issues management. “The takeaways were that we do research here that does change the world and it has a huge impact. You see that through the choices of the people in the video.”

Lentz and Swafford had existing relationships with their interview subjects, having worked with them previously on more serious videos. “We worked with them and sold them on the idea,” Lentz says. “They were pretty much [improvising] the whole thing as we coached them through it, to talk about what they’re experts on and then compare it to the breakfast taco. That’s where the humor came in.”

The video intertwines shots of the campus and breakfast tacos with faculty interviews, featuring Bob Metcalfe, professor of innovation and co-inventor of the Ethernet (“This new discovery is bigger than the personal computer, it’s bigger than the internet,” he says in the video); Livia Eberlin, assistant professor of chemistry and inventor of the cancer-detecting MasSpec pen (“It’s really going to change the world, it’s a breakthrough”); Dan Stanzione, executive director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (“It’s hard to imagine a breakthrough with the scope and potential impact of this one”); and Art Markman, professor of psychology and author of Smart Thinking (“Suddenly, there’s a plant-based breakfast taco—we all know the breakfast taco is the best food on the planet”).

Livia Eberlin, co-inventor of the MasSpec pen

Lentz wrote a press release to accompany the “Breakfast Taco Innovation” video that links the school’s various areas of expertise with the invention, ending with an editor’s note: “Experts and their accomplishments featured are real, but unfortunately the taco innovation is not.”

Results

The full campaign included the main video and press release, along with visual content for UT’s social media channels. The video organically reached more than 1 million users on Facebook and engaged 80,000 users. Twitter content for the campaign saw almost 6,000 engagements and more than 110,000 impressions. But the breakfast taco news grew beyond social networks: More than 100 media outlets shared stories about the campaign.

“I was talking to my mom who lives in Arizona and I was like, ‘Yeah, I just made this April Fool’s video about breakfast tacos growing at UT,’” Swafford says. “And she was like, ‘That was you? I was doing the dishes and had the TV on and it was on the news!’ … So I went and pulled the numbers—we had no idea.”

News coverage accounted for a local ad value of more than $200,000 and reached a local viewership of 2.8 million people. The campaign went on to win a Shorty Award in the education category this year.

“It’s a surprise when a more traditional brand like education takes a risk like this,” Lentz says. “I believe even in today’s world that good content rises to the top and we hit a nerve with a story that really resonated with people.”

At this time, the team has no plans to repeat this sort of prank campaign, but Lentz says she believes UT can achieve the same result in a different way. She says the breakfast taco campaign was a success because it was unexpected.

“One reason [the campaign] can stand out in a crowd is because it’s zigging where others zag,” Bird says. “If you watch educational videos, they—like corporate videos—tend to have a similar quality to them. This approach obviously stands out because it is about what a great university we are, it’s about our strengths, but it’s coming at it in a way that engages the audience with the unexpected and that is something that we do bring to all of our content projects. That’s the biggest lesson for us moving forward, to bring that spirit into all of our work.”

Sarah Steimer is managing editor of Marketing News. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.