CHICAGO – “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.” – Mark Twain
On April 1, 2003, Abbas Khalaf Kunfuth, the Iraqi ambassador to Russia, stepped onto a podium in Moscow to address the international press. Most in the crowd expected to hear him concede defeat for his nation. After all, thousands of American-led coalition forces were sweeping through Iraq. Kunfuth held up what he said was a bulletin from Reuters news service.
“The Americans,” he read, “have accidentally fired a nuclear missile into British forces, killing seven.” A stunned silence immediately overcame the room. Then Kunfuth shouted “April Fool’s!”
Despite a few such enormously inappropriate and maladroit examples, the prank played to salute the first day of April remains an honored tradition through most of the world.
The origins of April Fools’ Day go back, some say, to 16th century France, others say, further. In some accounts, the day of trickery is tied to a rite of spring, in others to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In 1983, an Associated Press story attempted to set the record straight, quoting Joseph Boskin, a history professor at Boston University, who had researched the subject.
He said that the practice began during the reign of Roman emperor Constantine, when his court’s jesters and fools claimed they could do a better job of running the empire. Constantine allowed a jester named Kugel to be king for a day. Kugel passed an edict calling for nothing but absurdity on that day, and the custom became an annual event.
Shortly after the AP story ran, it came to light that Professor Boskin was a prankster and the explanation was just one more April Fools’ Day prank.
Alex Boese (pronounced burr-za) is a historian of hoaxes. He has collected scores of them in his 2002 book, “Museum of Hoaxes,” and his Web site www.museumofhoaxes.com. He has recently published “Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other BS.”
“When I was a grad student in history at the University of California San Diego,” he said, “I’d read references to hoaxes and pranks, track them down and make notes. Then I started going through microfilm for various newspapers looking at the April 1 editions going back into the 19th century. You have to go through the whole week though, because the hoax isn’t always identified as such right away.”
Boese’s research turned up an announcement in the April 1, 1878, edition of the New York Graphic newspaper, that Thomas Edison had invented a machine able to transform soil directly into cereal and water directly into wine, thereby ending world hunger. Newspapers copied the article, heaping lavish praise on Edison.
The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser was particularly effusive in its praise, waxing eloquent about Edison’s brilliance in a long editorial. A few days later, the Graphic reprinted the Advertiser’s editorial in full, placing above it a simple, triumphant headline: “They Bite!”
Boese said he thinks that prank worked because Edison had invented the phonograph just the year before, and the nation thought he was a miracle-worker. “The trick to a really good prank,” Boese said, “is to have it be substantially absurd but believable to some gullible people.”
A case in point: In the April, 1998, issue of an online newsletter published by New Mexicans for Science and Reason there appeared an article claiming that the Alabama legislature had voted to change the value of pi from 3.14159 to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.
Aerospace engineers and others in the scientific community were quoted opposing the legislation then awaiting only the governor’s signature. One, Kim Johanson, a mathematician from the University of Alabama, said that pi is a universal constant and cannot arbitrarily be changed. It has an infinite number of digits after the decimal point and can never be known exactly. The article also quoted the bill’s Republican sponsor, Leonard Lee Lawson, who questioned the usefulness of any number that cannot be calculated exactly, and suggested that never knowing the exact answer could harm students’ self-esteem.
“We need to return to some absolutes in our society,” Lawson was said to have said.
“We just thought we’d have a little fun,” said Dave Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, “but our little joke got out of control.”
Through the magic of the Internet, the piece flew around the globe, turning up in such exotic locals as a German chat room dedicated to singer Tori Amos. Thomas, who works for a company that makes test equipment for things like auto parts, tracked the flight on his computer. “It was,” he said, “like being in the control room watching the virus spread in “24′.”
The author of the piece was Mark Boslough, a physicist at Sandia National lab Laboratories in Albuquerque, whose not so nudge-nudge workday efforts include “computational exploration of novel methods for asteroid defense.” Boslough had intended his article as a satire on politicians attempting to curtail the teaching of evolution.
The article itself evolved as it spread across the World Wide Web. “We had put in little clues that it was a hoax,” Thomas said, “like the wrong name for the governor of Alabama. At some point in the article’s travels, that name got corrected.”
The pi prank is number seven No. 7 on the Museum of Hoaxes list of top April Fool’s Day tricks.
Number one No. 1 on the list is the “documentary” shown in 1957 on BBC television depicting the unusually abundant spaghetti harvest that year. The film aired on Panorama, a public affairs show for a high-brow audience – the last place one would expect something so low-brow as an April Fool’s Day stunt. Happy villagers in the area of Switzerland just across the Italian border were shown hand-picking the pasta from the “orchards” of trees (unlike, the show’s highly respected anchor Richard Dimbleby noted, “the vast spaghetti plantations in the Pocq Valley. For the Swiss, it tends to be more of a family affair.”
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Dimbleby’s upper crust monotone delivery continued, “Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depradations have caused much concern in the past.”
The film ends on an upbeat note: “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”
Viewers called the network to inquire about growing their own spaghetti trees. The BBC’s reported response was: “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
The BBC has proven a rich source of April first pranks. In 1980, it reported that Big Ben, the clock that is iconic of London, was going digital. In 1999, BBC Radio announced that the national anthem (“God Save the Queen”) was to be replaced by an Euro anthem sung in German. The new anthem, played over the air, sampled various Beethoven works and was sung by pupils of a German school in London. Reportedly, Prince Charles’s office telephoned to ask for a copy of the new anthem. St. James Palace later insisted that it had been playing along with the prank and had never been taken in by it.
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Among the great hoaxes this side of the pond was one involving the very symbol of the founding of our nation. In 1996, the fast food fast-food chain, Taco Bell had full-page ads in seven major newspapers across the country declaring that the company had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.
“Couldn’t do one like that today,” said David Paine with a hint of regret in his voice. Paine, head of Paine PR, and some of his staff worked on the hoax with Taco Bell executives.
“There were four people in the library at Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, Calif., sitting around a table drinking Pepsi (Taco Bell’s corporate parent),” Paine said. “We were looking to tie into their new ad campaign of “Nothing ordinary about it,’ the fact that it wasn’t another burger store. We were trying to think symbolically and maybe a little irreverently, since Taco Bell had already started down that path.
“The idea to do some kind of April Fool’s joke actually had come from John Martin’s mother. He was Taco Bell’s CEO. I don’t know who actually said “Taco Liberty Bell,’ but it was the most successful project I’ve been involved with,” Paine said.
Successful indeed. The campaign cost about $300,000. Free publicity surrounding the story generated the equivalent of $25 million in advertising. Taco Bell sales increased by $500,000 on April 1 and $600,000 on April 2 over the prior week’s same day sales.
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Is he tempted to pull another April surprise?
“You couldn’t do that now,” Paine said. “It’s a different climate. Also there was an on-line online hoax that ended up reducing a company’s stock. It was a scam for profit. Everyone got nervous after that.”
These days, it isn’t just the pranksters who need to proceed with caution on the first day of April.
Google found that out on April 1, 2004, when it announced its new mail service, Gmail. Looking at the release date, people generally dismissed Gmail as a prank. The joke was on Google. It hadn’t been kidding.
Maybe they should have labeled the release, “This is an actual press release, not an April Fool trick.”
That would have done it.
Sure it would.
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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