The Last Corporate Prank Before PR Ruined Everything
I’ve been carrying the secret for 25 years. Today, I’m coming clean. This is the untold true story of a corporate April Fools prank gone wrong.
<NOTE: REPRINTS OF THIS STORY ALLOWED UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS WAIVER>
Exactly 25 years ago today, some Microsoft coworkers and I launched a complex and costly prank. We printed up hundreds of realistic shrink-wrapped boxes of a fake product, “Microsoft Coffee”, and snuck it into stores all around the greater Seattle area. Customers were amused, retail was confused, and the local news and tech media covered the prank. Until Microsoft’s PR flacks freaked out, and covered it all up. They scooped up all remaining boxes, denied Microsoft did the prank, downplayed the scale of it to the media, and imposed a ban on real-world pranks which largely remains to this day , ensuring all pranks from then on would need to go through them, as virtual press releases.
Things were different back in 1996. Most software was sold on floppy discs or CDs, in boxes you’d find at tech stores like Best Buy or Egghead Software. Microsoft dominated tech back then, with as much clout as today’s Amazon and Google combined. But Microsoft had a reputation, deserved or not, as more of an imitator than an innovator.
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So when my coworkers and I decided to pull a traditional April Fools tech prank, we thought it would be fun to poke fun at that reputation. Sun Microsystems had just come out with Java, we thought “Microsoft Coffee” sounded like a pale, tepid name for a me-too product.
But two things made our prank different from other pranks from tech companies.
First, instead of just sending out a press release about a goofy fake product, we wanted to make a physical product. Something someone could hold in their hand, and ideally that someone on TV news would hold in front of the camera. (With Starbucks becoming a national brand, we might confuse local media into thinking Microsoft was actually making a coffee-related product; that coincidence helped us, because local news didn’t really know what Java was.)
And second, unlike other pranks our prank didn’t just promote the company, and say ‘Microsoft is successful, but goofy’. Instead, it fed on the idea that Microsoft kind of sucked as a company in some way; a lazy copycat. These two differences would lead to trouble, but we didn’t foresee that.
The plan takes shape
In the weeks up to the prank, we got busy arranging a graphic design of the box, putting easter egg jokes in the tech specs on the side, leveraging corporate partnerships, and prepping to make a run of several hundred boxes through one of Microsoft’s production printing systems. This was not only expensive, but a commitment - a step that would in effect put an official stamp from Microsoft on the plan.
Another team of two prepared for the delivery phase, organizing routes to drive efficiently to a number of stores. The Egghead Software store in downtown Seattle would be our flagship, as they were dedicated to selling just software. Others like Office Depot would be on our hit list. These two would do the dirty work of surreptitiously placing the final, shrink-wrapped boxes - including fake SKU barcodes — right on the store shelves.
The morning of April 1st, 1996
After weeks of planning and design, Microsoft Coffee was “real”. The beautiful color boxes started appearing in stores from Everett to Redmond to Tukwila.
We sent a Microsoft press release to several local stations on the benefits of Microsoft Coffee, a fax unauthorized by corporate communications of course. A second fax from company letterhead managed to lure a small news crew to record a remote shot from the Seattle Egghead store. And soon, enough customers around Puget Sound were finding the boxes — and in some cases attempting to buy them — that it created a buzz. The prank was now real.
KOMO TV was the second station to bite, and covered the prank twice. In the late afternoon broadcast, the anchor described the prank, and then said that Microsoft denied any involvement with it. As we watched the broadcast live, we laughed at each other, speculating who, exactly, KOMO had talked to. Then the anchor said “So I guess this [box] is just… fake.” And he showily dropped it in his wastebasket.
Then came a few reports from DJs at the radio station now known as KEXP. People were apparently enjoying the joke, and were asking where they could get a box.
In the evening, the same KOMO anchor went through the story again, although this time, he didn’t throw the box away. And this time there were more details from Microsoft PR — about how Microsoft was indeed working on “Java” (we weren’t, exactly). About how the prank was not “far reaching”. And about how it came from outsiders. This was curious, and frankly a bit unsettling. Usually Microsoft was happy to take credit for clever pranks from employees, because it showed we played hard besides working hard.
Other news outlets and radio also covered the story, and by 10pm when we went home, we were quite happy at the impact. Our countless hours over the past month had paid off, and tens of thousand of people throughout Puget Sound had heard of our silly Microsoft Coffee product.
The PR Mess
In the morning, we came to work giddy. But that feeling quickly turned to fear, as we learned that Microsoft PR had actually flipped out. They had called up stores and ordered them to hold all remaining Microsoft Coffee boxes, as staff would come to collect them. They sent letters to the press insisting this was a outside party. And they had simultaneously starting asking employees who was responsible.
By the afternoon, PR brought in the Microsoft legal department, but our colleagues in that department said they found no legal issues, and even suggested Microsoft let it blow over. It was, after all, April Fools Day.
In meetings, BillG was said to say the prank was “in poor judgment” (perhaps fair), that it amounted to theft of company resources (fair), and that it made Microsoft look stupid — especially as a catch-up to Sun Microsystems (fair). But we have since learned that he didn’t pay much attention to the prank.
Ironically, it was the PR flacks who did not get the memo. On their own, they tried to clean up and bury the whole thing, out of fear that BillG might get really angry about it. (He never did. Nor did Legal). It was PR’s overreaction, and the aftermath, that caused the real problems. Their targeted email warned about “very serious consequences” to those involved, which was enough to shut me up. Especially since I had involved others, who had families. And it had a chilling effect on anything remotely ‘subversive’ or ‘rebellious’, which was not a good way to attract top technical talent in the 90s.
Fortunately, PR’s plan to suppress the story only partially worked, so it seemed fitting for me to share this story 25 years later, while there are still some vestiges of it around. There’s the KOMO footage (above). There are a handful of print articles from tech magazines at the time. And we are trying to get copies of old audio recordings from the radio coverage. But most companies, even media companies, didn’t have any web presence in 1996, and many magazines have no surviving print archives from before the late 90s.
Thanks for listening to my story, and for sharing with others! If you’d like to contact me, you can reach out at my Twitter @microsoftcoffee.