The media, in some form or another, has historically done a fantastic job of entertaining, confusing, and occasionally even causing a little mayhem for its audience on April Fools’ Day. Its track record veers from large-scale hoaxes (see #9 below) to harmless jokes that are immediately understood by their audience to be a prank (see #3). Regardless of their intention, the media has always had to walk a fine line between entertainment and brand trust on April 1st.
To celebrate the creativity and humor of years’ past, here’s Lineup’s list of the top 10 April Fools’ Day pranks the media has played on its often unsuspecting audiences – and some of the consequences!
Potentially the first time television had ever been used to stage an April Fools’ joke, the channel presented images of women in Switzerland “picking” spaghetti from trees and bushes as part of their annual harvesting effort. Even decades later, CNN called this broadcast the “biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled”.
The tropical island of San Serriffe celebrated its tenth anniversary of independence in 1977, according to the Guardian. In actuality, the Indian Ocean island and all its cities, ports, and topographical highlights were named after printing and typesetting terms (Sans Serif fonts, anyone?), clearly seen on the special report’s map.
- Cologne’s Westdeutsche Rundfunk Radio Announces Limits on Runner’s Speed – For Squirrel Safety (1993)
In spring 1993, the Westdeutsche Rundfunk radio station announced that city officials had determined that joggers in city parks could run no faster than 6 miles (10km) per hour, so the city’s squirrels would remain undisturbed during their delicate mating season.
Though the WXRT-FM station is now well known for its yearly pranks that date back to the 1970s, the prank they played in 1992 was taken much more seriously. When WXRT announced they’d be switching to a “pay-per-hear” format that would split the station into five different genres that listeners would have to pay to listen to (and scrambled the regular station’s signal to complete the charade), they were flooded with calls from protestors and even had one person picket outside the station.
Though this prank has now made a reappearance in more recent times, the initial prank was pulled by BBC Radio 2 presenters conspiring with astronomer Patrick Moore, who warned listeners that the gravitational pull between Jupiter and Pluto would decrease gravitation on Earth at precisely 9:47 am. Moore additionally said if everyone jumped into the air at that exact time, they would experience weightlessness. The BBC received hundreds of calls shortly after 9:47 confirming the phenomenon, after which Moore revealed on air that it was a prank.
Hundreds of spectators flooded the beaches in Brighton and Hove after Southern FM informed listeners they could watch a cardboard replica of the Titanic float by before it made its trek to France. The only indication that this was a prank was the fact that the company that manufactured the replica was called AFD – “April Fools’ Day”. The number of people who crowded the shores actually caused a 5 foot crack in the Beachy Head cliffs, and required displeased local officials and Coastguards to evacuate the area.
NPR’s All Things Considered program somberly recounted the sad story of the world’s last remaining cheese fondue hot springs in northern Wisconsin. The Vince Lombardi Hot Springs (yes, named after the American football coach), NPR argued, were in desperate need of a highly trained force of cheese rangers in an effort to keep the springs open to pilgrimage for “cheese communicants”.
Phil Shone caused a slight panic after he announced on the 1ZB radio station in 1949 that a mile-wide swarm of wasps was headed straight for Auckland. He helpfully gave listeners tips to prepare for incoming insects, telling them to tuck their trousers into their socks when they left the house and to set honey traps outside their doors. After hundreds heeded his advice, he announced that it was in fact a joke. The New Zealand Broadcasting Service was not amused and began sending out a memo at the end of March reminding its broadcasters that they were duty-bound to report the truth.
In 2008, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph both reported that the BBC had filmed a documentary titled Miracles of Evolution which detailed the discovery of flying penguins (who winter in the tropics of South America). Hosted by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, the documentary has a 90-second trailer that was used to promote BBC’s iPlayer, which is still on YouTube today with nearly 7 million views.
When Associated Press called Joseph Baskin, emeritus professor of history at Boston University, on April 1 1983 for a comment on the origin of April Fools’ Day, he initially told them he knew nothing. When they pressed, he made up an impressive origin story (that he didn’t expect them to believe) involving Emperor Constantine and a court jester named Kugel being appointed king for a day, to rule over a single day of absurdity. It took weeks for the AP to realize the story was an April Fools’ joke itself and gave Baskin an important lesson for his students (and journalists) to not believe everything they read, especially on April 1st, and to always check their stories.
Pranks and media trust
Over the years, the April Fools’ Day pranks have become larger than life, especially with social media spreading jokes like wildfire. In 2018, actor Tom Hardy named himself the new James Bond, and a website was built overnight claiming that Stephen King would be running for the governor of Maine.
Brands have even joined in on the fun, with Trader Joe’s announcing in 2016 that they would be shuttering their stores by the following year, while Heinz used the holiday to reveal their new chocolate mayonnaise, and Amazon gave our pets their own virtual assistant with Petlexa by Echo.
If you feel it’s appropriate, absolutely use today to have fun with your readers. When media companies and brands achieve the right balance of humor and mischief on April Fools’ Day, it can bring joy to your audience (which we could all use more of these days). Just ensure that you maintain your readers’, listeners’, or viewers’ trust in your company’s reporting – and try not to crack any cliffs!