Updated: Nov 16, 2020
April 1st is the day when international press openly admit to publishing fake news. The rest of the year they are more careful about the deception
April Fools is widely recognised in the non Hispanic world as a day for japes and jest in an attempt to sucker the gullible into believing fantastical tales. In the United Kingdom the tradition is said to have derived from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales while other countries claim differing origins. Behaviour extends from outlandish tales to full blown pranks, but it is generally understood in British culture that the joke must be played before midday otherwise it is considered to have backfired. the custom has been embraced by brands and companies as an indulgent type of marketing as well as media attempts to get one over on their public.
The media have developed a fine standing tradition of providing the public with fake news all year round, but on April 1st, we celebrate the practise openly, so here are some of the more outrageous and successful pranks from the archive:
In 1698, several people were fooled into turning up at the Tower of London to watch the advertised "annual washing of the lions"
The Islington Evening Star published a story in it's March 31st 1864 edition that an exhibition of Donkeys would be taking place the next day at the Agricultural Hall. A crowd gathered the next day and it gradually became apparent to them that they were the Donkeys!
Still, one of the most famous and successful April fools hoaxes was the BBC 1957 prank about the Spaghetti harvest. A piece on current affairs show Panorama announcing that the Spaghetti weevil had been eradicated as images showed people harvesting spaghetti from trees The BBC reported several calls requesting information on how to cultivate Spaghetti trees.
Milan's La Notte newspaper reported new legislation in 1961 that required all horses to be fitted with brake lights. As incredulous as it sounds, people took their horses to mechanics garages all across the city causing chaos and disruption.
In 1962 Swedish State TV broadcast an extensive piece on how colour broadcast could be received through stretching nylon stockings over the TV screen. The reported investigated the physics behind the phenomenon and thousands tried it.
Not to be outdone the BBC did something similar in 1965, announcing a trial of smell-o-vision technology. Amazingly, they received calls from viewers to report the experiment to be successful. The BBC actually repeated the hoax in 2007 as did Google in 2013.
The powerful effect of suggestion was used to great effect by Netherlands state TV in 1969. Announcing that new detector vans were prowling the streets to detect those who had not paid their TV tax. It was suggested the only way to block the signals being picked up by the new vans was to cover your TV in aluminium foil. The next day supermarkets reported having sold out of aluminium foil across the country and the government reported a healthy increase in the numbers of people that paid their TV tax.
To celebrate the 100 year anniversary on Thomas Cook's first round the world excursion The London Times announced a limited offer for travel around the world for the cost of 210 Guineas. The resultant stampede for the offer led to the Times having to apologise for the problems they caused
Radio 2 listeners in 1975 were told by venerable astronomer Sir Patrick Moore that an alignment of Pluto and Jupiter would lead to a gravitational effect at precisely 9.47 that would make people lighter. He encouraged people to jump at that moment and experience a floating sensation. Several listeners reported a success, including one woman who claimed her and her 11 friends floated off their chairs and drifted around the room.
The Daily Mail caught people out in 1982 with a story as to how the underwire in women's bras was interfering with the TV signal across the country. Hundreds of people fell for the ruse, following instructions to remove their bras and shake them to dispel any charge that could cause interference. among those duped was the Chief Engineer at British Telecom who advised female staff to follow procedure to avoid interference with sensitive equipment. One wonders if this prank would be lambasted as cruel patriarchy in these more complicated times.
In BBC pranks, the use of trusted broadcasters with authoritative reputations seems to be the reliable format for duping the public. Des Lynham commented on the professionalism of the Grandstand team mid broadcast in 1989 as a fight erupted in the open pan studio behind him. He naturally admonished his audience for being pranked later in the show.
In 2014, virtually every British newspaper wove a Scottish Independence story into their April 1st editions. The Telegraph reported plans to put Alex Salmond on the pound coin, The Guardian published plans for Scotland to drive on the right post Independence, The Independent confirmed plans to send UN peace keeping troops to patrol the border, the Daily Mail leaked photos of a redesigned Union Jack without the Scottish St. Andrew's cross and The Times suggested that a German Duke had been confirmed as the best surviving claim to the Scottish throne.
The website Hoaxes.org holds a far more exhaustive resource of April fools hoaxes to peruse, but what is consistently astonishing about this cultural phenomenon is just how easy it is to convince the public. So many of these jokes are received as truth by such large numbers of people it does rather beg the question as to why we seem to suspend our critical faculties so readily. Perhaps our weary eye should be cast over stories the whole year round.