On April 1, it’s safe to say that a number of odd things will happen: fake snakes will pop out of cans innocently labeled “Nuts,” whoopee cushions will noisily deflate beneath unsuspecting derrieres, and countless phone calls will be made concerning the status of people’s refrigerators. You can’t trust anyone on April Fools’ Day, least of all the people closest to you, like friends and coworkers. But tricks can come from unlikely sources, too, like your daily newspaper or favorite TV program. Making April fools out of audiences has become increasingly popular among the media and big companies, but some hoaxes are so creative and hilarious, they make the others look, well, foolish.
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, 1957
On a broadcast of the BBC news show Panorama, anchor Richard Dimbleby introduced a story about a particularly successful harvest in Switzerland that year. Video footage showed workers in the spaghetti fields, talking about how the mild winter and eradication of the dastardly “spaghetti weevil” yielded especially thriving pasta crops. According to MuseumofHoaxes.com, the BBC was flooded with inquiries from viewers about how to grow their own spaghetti plants. Only then did they find out that the BBC was having a laugh at their expense.
San Serriffe, the Hottest New Holiday Spot, 1977
The Guardian fooled almost all of its readers with a seven-page spread about a fictitious collection of islands in the Indian Ocean called San Serriffe. The articles detailed the history, culture, and geography of the islands, including the two main ones, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Even advertisers like Texaco, Guinness, and Kodak got in on the joke; the latter actually offered readers the chance to win a vacation to San Serriffe’s Cocobanana Beach. But the Guardian had to fess up after receiving numerous calls and letters about the phony destination.
Big Ben Switches from Analog to Digital, 1980
You’d think the Spaghetti Harvest prank would’ve taught audiences not to trust the BBC on April 1, but the network successfully struck again twenty-three years later, reporting that London’s famous clock tower would move into modern times by going digital. BBC Japan continued the joke by telling viewers the first four people to call in to the show could buy the clock hands.
The Story of Rookie Sidd Finch, 1985
Sports Illustrated’s April issue featured a terrific story by writer George Plimpton about an up-and-coming rookie just signed to the Mets. His name was Hayden Siddhartha Finch (called Sidd for short) and he reportedly threw baseballs at a record-breaking 165 miles per hour. But that wasn’t the most surprising part of his story—supposedly, he’d never even played the game. Instead, Sidd acquired his baseball skills at a Tibetan monastery. Many readers wrote in requesting more information about Sidd, so the magazine had to admit it was a joke.
The Liberty Bell Gets a New Owner, 1996
Taco Bell used six major U.S. newspapers to announce its acquisition of the Liberty Bell. The ads claimed it was “an effort to help the national debt,” and that the name would be changed to the Taco Liberty Bell. The move drew such backlash that Philadelphia’s National Park Service had to dispute the hoax in a press conference. Taco Bell responded with a press release admitting that the ad was fake, but noting that the company was donating $70,000 toward the bell’s upkeep. The stunt was still criticized, but Taco Bell claimed it was actually a good deed, since it sparked interest in the American symbol.
Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak Trade Places, 1997
Viewers tuning in to Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune were in for a surprise that April. Hosts Trebek and Sajak switched roles for the day, with Sajak manning Jeopardy and Trebek hosting Wheel. (Sajak’s wife, Lesly, took Vanna White’s role, and Sajak and White participated as contestants instead.) That wasn’t the last time Trebek goofed on viewers, though; in April 2008, he donned a fake mustache during the first part of the episode, a nod to the famous ’stache he’d shaved in 2001.
April Fools’ Day Switcheroonie, Comic Strip–Style, 1997
Baby Blues creators Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott came up with the idea to have comic-strip artists and writers switch places for a day, which resulted in a very different funnies section that April 1. Forty-six people took part: Dilbert’s Scott Adams was in charge of Family Circus; the writer and artist for Blondie took over Garfield; and Drabble’s Kevin Fagan just drew his own comic using his opposite hand.
A Whopper for Lefties, 1998
Burger King came out with a full-page ad in USA Today celebrating its latest menu addition: a Whopper with condiments that had been rotated 180 degrees specifically for left-handed burger enthusiasts. Seems ridiculous now, but enough people fell for it—requesting both the “Left-Handed Whopper” and the “old version”—that BK had to issue a follow-up press release explaining the prank.
Google’s MentalPlex, 2000
Google introduced MentalPlex, a search engine that supposedly read people’s minds to find out what they were searching for. By staring into the swirling circle of colors on the Web page and concentrating really hard, you could allegedly eliminate the need to type (and reduce the possibility of carpal tunnel syndrome, to boot). It even covered privacy violations in its FAQ section: “While MentalPlex does have the potential of probing your deepest darkest secrets and desires, this information is only used in aggregate and rarely sold to advertisers unless they ask very, very nicely.”
A Different Kind of Economic Stimulus, 2008
NPR, like the BBC, is no stranger to April Fools’ Day pranks: each year it does something different. In 1983, it reported on fondue hot springs. In 1992, it announced that Nixon was running for president again. And in 2008, Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano reported on the IRS’s new system of sending consumer products in lieu of rebate checks to ensure economic stimulus. According to “Debt-to-Purchase Ratio Assessor” for the IRS, Beverly Jaworsky, “We plug in Social Security numbers into our database, we find where the people live, and we send them something that would be suitable to their lifestyle.” Lest listeners flood NPR phone lines in shock and disgust, host Kai Ryssdal said at the end of the story, “Oh, c’mon, check your calendars, everybody.”
I can’t wait to find out what newspapers, radios, and TV programs have in store for us this year. But even after so many instances of public April Fools’ Day pranks, there’s still bound to be a bunch of people who’ll get tricked this year, whether by the media or by their coworkers. After all, everybody plays the fool; there’s no exception to the rule. If it happens to you, just laugh it off—and then make a detailed revenge list for next year.
Updated on March 30, 2011