The Museum of Hoaxes
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Advertising Hoaxes
Wine Spectator Hoaxed, 2008
Since 1981 the magazine Wine Spectator has given "Awards of Excellence" to restaurants that it deems to have exceptional wine lists. To win an award a restaurant must submit their wine list to the magazine and pay a $250 application fee. Over two-thirds of the restaurants who submit an application win an award, and the contest earns Wine Spectator over $1 million a year in fees. In 2008 the magazine gave an award to Osteria L’Intrepido, a restaurant in Milan, Italy. It was later embarrassed to discover that this restaurant did not exist. More…
The Mini Cooper Autonomous Robot, 2004
The website of Colin Mayhew offered details on how this eccentric, but apparently brilliant, engineer had built an "autonomous crash-preventing robot" from the body of a BMW Mini Cooper r50. Video showed the humanoid robot in action, stopping a car from crashing into a wall. The Mini Cooper Autonomous Robot was eventually revealed to be an elaborate viral marketing campaign designed to promote the new Mini Cooper. More…
Hunting for Bambi, 2003
A news report by Las Vegas station KLAS-TV about a company selling "Bambi Hunts" sparked nationwide outrage. Bambi Hunts were supposedly games in which men with paintball guns hunted naked women in the Nevada desert. Numerous critics denounced the hunts, demanding to know how such a thing could be legal. Only after a week did it become apparent that the company wasn't really conducting such hunts. It had only claimed to do so as a way to promote a soft-porn video about a fictional Bambi Hunt. Although their stunt almost got them run out of Las Vegas, the company did sell thousands of copies of the video. More…
The Cesky Sen Hypermarket, 2003
Lured by ads throughout Prague promoting a new hypermarket called Cesky Sen ("Czech Dream") that would sell products at unbelievably low prices, hundreds of people showed up at the Lethany Fairgrounds for the grand opening. But all they found was a giant Cesky Sen banner. There was no hypermarket, nor plans to build one. Several student filmmakers had set out to record what would happen when consumer's expectations collided with reality, and so had launched a marketing blitz to promote a non-existent, too-good-to-be-true store. More…
The Microsoft iLoo, 2003
MSN UK, a division of Microsoft, announced the imminent introduction of the iLoo, the world's first internet-enabled port-a-potty. The iLoo would boast a wireless keyboard, height-adjustable flat plasma screen, broadband internet access, and toilet paper printed with URL suggestions. The press reacted with incredulity to the announcement, and as the press scrutiny intensified, a Microsoft representative eventually admitted that the iLoo was a hoax. But the next day, the company reversed itself, confessing that the iLoo actually wasn't a hoax but was instead a product that had temporarily been under serious consideration but was no longer going to be developed. More…
Dave Manning, 2001
No matter how bad the movies of Columbia Pictures were, there was always one reviewer sure to heap praise on them, Dave Manning of the Ridgefield Press. For instance, while other reviewers skewered the sophomoric comedy The Animal, it impressed Manning as "another winner." His rave reviews might have gone forever unnoticed, except that Newsweek reporter John Horn uncovered the curious truth about him, which was that Manning didn't exist at all. He was the fictional creation of a young marketing executive at Sony, the parent company of Columbia Pictures, used to generate fake praise for otherwise unpraiseworthy movies. More…

Ron’s Angels, 1999
It's legal to sell donor eggs to infertile couples. But Ron Harris, an erotic photographer, proposed taking this process one step further. He established a website at which nubile supermodels auctioned off their eggs to the highest bidders. The concept outraged the infertility industry. News of the website was broken by the New York Times, but suspicions were raised when people noticed that no bids were being logged on the site. It turned out that the supermodel egg auction was a publicity stunt designed to attract visitors to Harris's real business, a pornography site. More…
The Blair Witch Project, 1999
The Blair Witch Project was a multimillion-dollar box-office sensation. Much of this success owed to a clever marketing scheme centering around the website, where web surfers could view detailed historical information about the legend of the Blair Witch. It was all so convincing that many people were fooled into believing that the Blair Witch was a real historical figure. She wasn't. The entire tale was fictitious. Nevertheless, the hoax site revolutionized internet marketing and spawned many imitators. More…
The Sneaker Pimps Crop Circle
In July 1997 a crop circle resembling the logo of a popular band, the Sneaker Pimps, appeared in Warwickshire, England. This band was playing in the nearby Phoenix music festival. No one ever took credit for the formation. Cerealogists Andy Thomas and Mike Leigh have suggested that "the thought patterns of those at the festival had somehow coalesced to create it in ways which experiments had shown possible." An alternative (more plausible) explanation is that it was created either by a fan, or by a public-relations agent trying to publicize the band. More…
The Taco Liberty Bell, 1996
When the Taco Bell Corporation announced it had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell, it explained it was doing so as part of its effort to "help the national debt." Nevertheless, hundreds of people called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia where the bell was housed to express their anger. Their nerves were only calmed when Taco Bell revealed, a few hours later, that it was all a practical joke, and reminded them that it was April Fool's Day. Later that day, White House press secretary Mike McCurry joked that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would be renamed the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial. More…
The Sibuxiang Beast, 1994
On the evening of September 19, 1994, a stark warning repeated for TV viewers in Taiyuan, in northern China. The Sibuxiang beast, the message said, was on the loose and heading towards the city. "Everyone close your windows and doors and be on alert," people were warned. Many residents panicked, barricading themselves inside their homes. Others called the local authorities to find out what was happening. As it turned out, the Sibuxiang Beast was not an animal, but a new brand of liquor. The message had been an advertisement. TV commercials were still something of a novelty in China, and thus the confusion. More…
The BMW Crop Circle, 1993
A crop circle appeared in a field of rye located outside of Johannesburg, South Africa during the first week of February 1993. The media speculated excitedly about whether it was the work of a UFO. Popular curiosity grew until February 14, when a small detail was pointed out that had previously escaped almost everyone's notice: the circle formed a BMW logo. The circle turned out to be the work of the Hunt Lascaris ad agency, working on behalf of BMW. TV commercials soon followed, showing aerial views of the circle accompanied by the tag-line, "Perhaps there is intelligent life out there after all." More…
Subways Are For Sleeping, 1962
On January 4, 1962, an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune for a Broadway play titled "Subways Are For Sleeping." Judging by the ad, it appeared the play was a critical success. The names of seven well-known theater critics appeared in the ad, and accompanying their names were the rave reviews they had given the play. But, in truth, the quotations came from ordinary people who happened to have the same names as the critics. More…
The Sandpaper Test, 1959
In 1959, the Colgate-Palmolive company began airing three TV ads in America for its Palmolive Rapid-Shave shaving cream. All three commercials included a "sandpaper test" designed to demonstrate that Rapid-Shave's "moisturizing" action was so powerful it would not only soften up even the heaviest beard in seconds, but also make sandpaper shaveable. But what viewers were led to believe was a piece of sandpaper being shaved was actually plexiglass covered with sand. More…
Ghost Artists, 1952
On February 5, 1952, a small ad ran on the theatrical page of the Washington Post offering the services of a company of "ghost artists": "Too busy to paint? Call on the Ghost Artists? We paint it, you sign it." The idea of ghost artists caught the interest of the media, and a report about the company went out over the wire services and appeared in newspapers nationwide. The ghost artists were said to be earning lucrative fees from executives who wanted to impress their friends. Satisfied clients included military men, government officials, doctors, businessmen, and a Wall Street broker who commissioned an entire exhibition in order to break... More…
The Kidnapping of Nicole Riche, 1950
At 3 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, April 1, 1950 the 22-year-old French actress Nicole Riche walked into a Paris police station dressed in a flimsy white negligee. She had been missing for over two days. When the police questioned her about where she had been, she spilled forth a bizarre tale about being kidnapped by "Puritans" who kept her in a room without food while they lectured her about the immorality of her life. Finally, she said, her captors abandoned her in the Fontainebleau Forest, where she was found and helped to safety by kindly gypsies. The police believed none of her tale, and rightly so. Her "kidnapping" turned out to have... More…
Hoaxes & Stunts of Jim Moran
Jim Moran (1907-1999) was called, at various times, "super salesman number one," "America's No. 1 prankster," and "the last great bunco artist in the profession of publicity." He became famous during the 1930s and 40s for devising outrageous stunts on behalf of his clients. Typically his stunts were in the spirit of tongue-in-cheek performances, such as actually trying to find a needle in a haystack, but occasionally he perpetrated outright hoaxes, such as when he submitted one of his own works to the Los Angeles Art Association, telling them it was a painting by an obscure artist named Naromji. More…
The Brazilian Invisible Fish
Harry Reichenbach (1882-1931) was a publicist whose career spanned the early twentieth century. He was responsible for promoting many movies and show business personalities. In his autobiography, Phantom Fame (written with the help of David Freedman), Reichenbach described a publicity stunt he devised early in his career that has since become a classic example of inventive (though misleading) low-budget promotion. It involved a creature called the "Brazilian Invisible Fish." More…
Stotham: The Town That Didn’t Exist, 1920
The quaint Massachusetts town of Stotham, described in an advertising monograph as an example of an unspoiled New England village, didn't actually exist. More…
The September Morn Hoax, 1913
Paul Chabas's painting "September Morn" won a gold medal of honor in 1912 at the Paris Salon. But when copies of the painting made their way to America, it provoked a bitter controversy about nudity, art, and public morality. Thanks to this controversy, September Morn became one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century, selling millions of copies. The painting is often cited as an example of "success by scandal." But publicist Harry Reichenbach later claimed to have started the controversy by complaining to moral censors about the indecency of the painting. He didn't actually feel the painting was indecent. He was cynically manipulating the self-righteous moralists in order to sell copies of the painting. More…
The Free Grand Buffalo Hunt
Posters that appeared around New York City in the summer of 1843 advertised a "Grand Buffalo Hunt" that would take place across the river in Hoboken on August 31, 1843. For the entertainment of the crowd, which would be protected behind thick double-rail fencing, cowboys would pretend to hunt and lasso a herd of wild buffalo imported from New Mexico. Best of all, the event would take place free of charge. The organizer of this event was the showman P.T. Barnum, and naturally he had a scheme to make money from it. He had secretly cut a deal with the operators of the Hoboken ferry, so that he would receive half of their net receipts. The more... More…
The Hoaxes of P.T. Barnum
Barnum described himself as the "Prince of Humbug," an epithet he more than earned during his long career. He's best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name, but before the circus he ran a New York museum, and it was this museum that initially made him rich and famous. He attracted visitors to it by means of sensational publicity stunts, hoaxes, and plain-old false advertising. But he managed to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. More…
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Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.