Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time
As judged by notoriety, creativity, and number of people duped.
Note from the Curator: I created the first version of this list in the late 1990s. Back then, there was hardly any information collected about April Fool's Day pranks, so I had to do a lot of research in newspaper archives to put this together. Luckily I was in grad school, so I had a lot of spare time on my hands ;-).
Over the years I've tweaked the list, rearranging it slightly and adding new entries based on reader feedback and ongoing research, but my top choices have remained pretty much the same.
This list is easily the most popular article I've ever posted on the Museum of Hoaxes. Extracts from it (some attributed, some not) can be found on hundreds of other websites. Plus, it's inspired some spinoffs. A couple of years ago, someone created an iPhone app version of it (which I've never seen because I don't have an iPhone), and the folks at the Drama Pod created a dramatized audio version of it in 2011.
I hope you enjoy it — and if you know of any old hoaxes that I haven't mentioned on the site, send me an email and let me know.
In 1972 listeners to England's Radio 3 program In Parenthesis
were treated to a roundtable discussion of a few cutting-edge new works of social anthropology and musicology. First up was a discussion of La Fornication Comme Une Acte Culturelle
by Henri Mensonge (translated as Henry Lie). This book argued that "we live in an age of metaphorical rape" in which "confrontation, assault, intrusion, and exposure are becoming validated transactions, the rites of democracy, of mass society." This sparked a blisteringly incomprehensible debate, which eventually segued into an exploration of the question "Is 'Is' Is?" Finally, the audience heard a rousing deconstruction of the 'arch form' of the sonata's first motif. Listeners seemed to accept the program's discussion as a legitimate exploration of new trends in the arts. Thankfully, it was a parody.
The April 2000 issue of Esquire
magazine introduced its readers to an exciting new company called Freewheelz. This company had a novel business plan. It intended to provide drivers with free cars. In exchange, the lucky drivers had to agree both to the placement of large advertisements on the outside of their vehicle and to the streaming of advertisements on the radio inside their car. Strict criteria limited the number of people eligible to receive a free car. Not only did you have to guarantee that you would drive over 300 miles a week, you also had to complete a 600-question survey that probed into personal information such as your political affiliations and whether you were concerned about hair loss. Finally you had to submit your family's tax returns, notarized video-store-rental receipts, and a stool sample. The entire article, written by Ted Fishman, was a satire of the much-touted "new economy" spawned by the internet. Attentive readers would have caught on to the joke if they had noticed that Freewheelz's official rollout on the web was slated to occur on April 1. But readers who didn't notice this tip-off flooded the offices of Esquire
with calls, demanding to know how they could sign up to drive a free minivan. The satire also went over the head of the CEO's of a number of real internet start-ups with business plans similar to that of the fictitious Freewheelz, companies such as Mobile Billboard Network, Freecar.com, and Autowraps.com. Larry Butler, the CEO of freecar.com, later confessed to Fishman that he was so scared at the prospect of this new competition that he cried when he first read the article.
In 2000 early morning commuters travelling on the northern carriageway of the M3 near Farnborough, Hampshire encountered a pedestrian zebra crossing painted across the busy highway. The perpetrator of the prank was unknown. A police spokesman speculated that the prank, "must have been done very early in the morning when there was little or no traffic on the motorway." Maintenance workers were quickly summoned to remove the crossing, which was apparently not too difficult to do since the pranksters had used emulsion paint rather than gloss. The police noted that, surprisingly, they had received no calls from the public about the crossing.
In 1999 executives at 130 major companies received a professionally designed package of information about an exciting new product: Total Home Remote Electricity. Forget wireless computers. This technology, created by Ottmar Industries of Switzerland, allowed electricity itself to be beamed wirelessly anywhere within a house. Simply plug one of the small "projectors" into a wall outlet, and a safe electrical "aura" would envelop the home. Then attach a converter to any appliance, and the appliance would be able to receive power at any location within the aura, even outside on the roof. "Did you ever imagine making toast on your roof?" the promotional material asked. Accompanying the ads was a letter that included a phone number the executives could call for more information. Reportedly, about 30 people called the number, including three high-level executives. But the number really connected them to the advertising agency, Hoffman york, that had sent out the fake ad as an April Fool's Day publicity stunts.
In 1999 the Singapore Straits Times
reported that a 17-year-old high school student had one-upped all the major software corporations of the world by creating a small computer program that would easily solve the Y2K bug. The camera-shy C student had supposedly devised the program in twenty-nine minutes while solving an algebra problem for his homework. His family and a technology consulting group were reportedly forming a joint venture named 'Polo Flair' in order to commercialize the discovery. They anticipated achieving revenues of $50 million by the end of the year. Numerous journalists and computer specialists contacted the Straits Times
, seeking more information about the boy genius and his Y2K cure. One journalist even wanted to know if the boy would be willing to appear on TV, despite the fact that he was camera shy. Unfortunately the boy and his ingenious program didn't exist. Quick-witted readers would have noticed that 'Polo Flair' was an anagram for 'April Fool.'
The April 1, 1998 online edition of Nature
Magazine revealed the discovery of "a near-complete skeleton of a theropod dinosaur in North Dakota." The discovery was referred to in an article by Henry Gee discussing the palaeontological debate over the origin of birds. The dinosaur skeleton had reportedly been discovered by Randy Sepulchrave of the Museum of the University of Southern North Dakota. The exciting part of the discovery, according to the article, was that "The researchers believe that the dinosaur, now named as Smaugia volans, could have flown." In actuality, the University of Southern North Dakota does not exist, though it has been made famous by Peter Schickele
who refers to it as the location where the music of the obscure eighteenth-century composer PDQ Bach was first performed; Smaug was the name of the dragon in Tolkein's The Hobbit; and Sepulchrave was the name of the 76th Earl of Groan in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan. This Earl, believing that he was an owl, leapt to his death from a high tower, discovering too late that he could not fly.
In 1996 AOL subscribers who logged onto the service were greeted by a news flash announcing that a "Government source reveals signs of life on Jupiter." The claim was backed up by statements from a planetary biologist and an assertion by Ted Leonsis, AOL's president, that his company was in possession of documents proving that the government was hiding the existence of life on the massive planet. The story quickly generated over 1,300 messages on AOL. A spokesman for the company later explained that the hoax had been intended as a tribute to Orson Welles's 1938 Halloween broadcast of the War of the Worlds
In 1995 the Irish Times
reported that the Disney Corporation was negotiating with the Russian government to purchase the embalmed body of communist leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The body has been kept on display in Red Square since the leader's death. Disney proposed moving the body and the mausoleum to the new Euro Disney, where it would be given the "full Disney treatment." This would include displaying the body "under stroboscopic lights which will tone up the pallid face while excerpts from President Reagan's 'evil empire' speech will be played in quadrophonic sound." Lenin t-shirts would also be sold. Disney anticipated that this attraction would attract more visitors to the theme park, significantly boosting profits which had been weak since the park's opening. The Russians were said to be agreeable to the sale of Lenin's body. But a controversy had erupted about the sale of the mausoleum. Liberal groups wanted to keep the mausoleum empty "to symbolize the 'emptiness of the Communist system,'" while Russian nationalists wanted to transform it into a memorial to Tsar Nicholas II.
In 1994 National Public Radio's All Things Considered
program reported that companies such as Pepsi were sponsoring teenagers to tattoo their ears with corporate logos. In return for branding themselves with the corporate symbol, the teenagers would receive a lifetime 10% discount on that company's products. Teenagers were said to be responding enthusiastically to this deal.
In 1991 the London Times
announced that the Department of Transport had finalized a plan to ease congestion on the M25, the circular highway surrounding London. The capacity of the road would be doubled by making the traffic on both carriageways travel in the same direction. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays the traffic would travel clockwise; while on Tuesdays and Thursdays it would travel anti-clockwise. The plan would not operate on weekends. It was said that the scheme was almost certain to meet with the cabinet's approval, despite voices of protest coming from some quarters. One of the protestors included a spokesman for Labour Transport who reportedly warned that "Many drivers already have trouble telling their left from their right." Also, a resident of Swanley, Kent was quoted as saying, "Villagers use the motorway to make shopping trips to Orpington. On some days this will be a journey of two miles, and on others a journey of 117 miles. The scheme is lunatic." Thankfully, the scheme existed only in the minds of the writers at the Times
All text Copyright © 2011 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.