Top Ten April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of the 21st Century
1. Flying Penguins
2008: The BBC announced that camera crews filming near the Antarctic for its natural history series Miracles of Evolution had captured footage of Adélie penguins taking to the air. It even offered a video clip of these flying penguins, which became one of the most viewed videos on the internet. Presenter Terry Jones explained that, instead of huddling together to endure the Antarctic winter, these penguins took to the air and flew thousands of miles to the rainforests of South America where they “spend the winter basking in the tropical sun.” A follow-up video explained how the BBC created the special effects of the flying penguins.
2. 15th Annual New York City April Fool’s Day Parade
2000: A news release sent to the media stated that the 15th annual New York City April Fool’s Day Parade was scheduled to begin at noon on 59th Street and would proceed down to Fifth Avenue. According to the release, floats in the parade would include a “Beat ‘em, Bust ‘em, Book ‘em” float created by the New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle police departments. This float would portray “themes of brutality, corruption and incompetence.” A “Where’s Mars?” float, reportedly built at a cost of $10 billion, would portray missed Mars missions. Finally, the “Atlanta Braves Baseball Tribute to Racism” float would feature John Rocker who would be “spewing racial epithets at the crowd.” CNN and the Fox affiliate WNYW sent television news crews to cover the parade. They arrived at 59th Street at noon only to discover that there was no sign of a parade, at which point the reporters realized they had been hoaxed. The prank was the handiwork of Joey Skaggs, an experienced hoaxer. Skaggs had been issuing press releases advertising the nonexistent parade every April Fool’s Day since 1986.
3. Migrant Mother Makeover
2005: Popular Photography ran an article titled “Can these photos be saved?” about how to remove unsightly wrinkles from photographic subjects. They chose, as an example of a photo that “needed to be saved,” Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photo taken in 1936 during the Great Depression. Lange’s photo is one of the most widely admired in the world. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe it as the Mona Lisa of photographs, and the Migrant Mother’s stoic expression is what makes the image great. Nevertheless, the editors of Popular Photography erased her wrinkles, softened her gaze, and removed her kids, transforming her from an iconic symbol of endurance into a smooth-faced, worry-free soccer mom. Their readers were horrified, not realizing the article was a spoof on the way magazines routinely touch-up celebrity images to remove blemishes and wrinkles. Hundreds wrote in expressing outrage at the defacement of such a classic image. To which the editors replied: Look at the date it was published!
4. The Derbyshire Fairy
2007: In late March 2007, images of an 8-inch mummified creature resembling a fairy were posted on the website of the Lebanon Circle Magik Co. Accompanying text explained how the creature had been found by a man walking his dog along an old roman road in rural Derbyshire. Word of this discovery soon spread around the internet. Bloggers excitedly speculated about whether the find was evidence of the actual existence of fairies. By April 1 the Lebanon Circle website had received tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of emails. But at the end of April 1, Dan Baines, the owner of the site, confessed that the fairy was a hoax. He had used his skills as a magician’s prop-maker to create the creature. Baines later reported that, even after his confession, he continued to receive numerous emails from people who refused to accept the fairy wasn’t real.
5. An Interview with President Carter
2001: Michael Enright, host of the Sunday Edition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corpation’s radio program This Morning, interviewed former President Jimmy Carter on the air. The interview concerned Canada’s heavily subsidized softwood lumber industry, about which Carter had recently written an editorial piece in The New York Times. The interview took a turn for the worse when Enright began telling Carter to speed up his answers. Then Enright asked, “I think the question on everyone’s mind is, how did a washed-up peanut farmer from Hicksville such as yourself get involved in such a sophisticated bilateral trade argument?” Carter seemed stunned by the insult. Finally he replied, “Excuse me? A washed-up peanut farmer? You’re one to talk, sir. Didn’t you used to be on the air five times a week?” The tone of the interview did not improve from there. Carter ended up calling Enright a “rude person” before he hung up. Enright then revealed that the interview had been fake. The Toronto comedian Ray Landry had been impersonating Carter’s voice. The interview generated a number of angry calls from listeners who didn’t find the joke funny. But the next day the controversy reached even larger proportions when the Globe and Mail reported the interview as fact on their front pages. The editor of the Globe and Mail later explained that he hadn’t realized the interview was a hoax because it was “a fairly strange issue and a strange person to choose as a spoof.”
6. The Sheep Albedo Hypothesis
2007: RealClimate.org posted about the work of Dr. Ewe Noh-Watt of the New Zealand Institute of Veterinary Climatology, who had discovered that global warming was caused not by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but rather by the decline of New Zealand’s sheep population. The reasoning was that sheep are white, and therefore large numbers of sheep increase the planet’s albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected back into space). As the sheep population declined, the ground was absorbing more solar radiation, thus warming the planet: “It can be seen that the recent warming can be explained entirely by the decline in the New Zealand sheep population, without any need to bring in any mysterious so-called ‘radiative forcing’ from carbon dioxide, which doesn’t affect the sunlight (hardly) anyway — unlike Sheep Albedo.”
Noh-Watt also warned of a potentially destabilizing feedback mechanism: “As climate gets warmer, there is less demand for wool sweaters and wooly underwear. Hence the sheep population tends to drop, leading to even more warming. In an extreme form, this can lead to a ‘runaway sheep-albedo feedback,’ which is believed to have led to the present torrid climate of Venus.”
7. IPO for F/rite Air
2000: By April 2000 the dot.com bubble was rapidly deflating. This didn’t deter hundreds of Dutch investors from lining up to buy shares in F/rite Air, which was being billed as a hot new technology company backed by supporters such as Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and George Soros. The announcement about the company’s IPO was posted on iex.nl, a financial web site for Dutch investors. It was reported that shares in the IPO could be reserved for $18 each by email, although it was said that analysts anticipated the stock soaring to above $80 on the first day of its filing. The company seemed like a sure thing, and almost immediately orders worth over $7 million flooded in. The orders didn’t stop coming in even after the newspapers had revealed the IPO to be an April Fool’s Day joke. F/rite air was a pun for ‘Fried air’ (i.e. Hot Air).
8. Portable Zip Codes
National Public Radio’s All Things Considered announced that the post office had begun a new ‘portable zip codes’ program. This program, inspired by an FCC ruling that allowed phone users to take their phone number with them when they moved, would allow people to also take their zip code with them when they moved, no matter where they moved to. It was hoped that with this new program zip codes would come to symbolize “a citizen’s place in the demographic, rather than geographic, landscape.” Assistant Postmaster General Lester Crandall was quoted as saying, “Every year millions of Americans are on the go: People who must relocate for work or other reasons. Those people may have been quite attached to their original homes or an adopted town or city of residence. For them this innovative measure will serve as an umbilical cord to the place they love best.”
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.
10. Viagra for Hamsters
In 2000 The Independent reported that Florida researchers had developed a Viagra-like pill to treat sexually frustrated pets, including hamsters. Veterinarians were said to have greeted the news with derision, but the article pointed out that there are few things as sad as a pet suffering from feelings of sexual inadequacy, noting that “It’s not unknown for a guinea pig to sit in its cage thinking, ‘I haven’t had sex for months. Am I so unattractive?’.” Owners were instructed to simply grind the pills up and sprinkle them in the pet’s food. Laying some newspaper down on the floor once the pills began to take effect was also advised. The pills were to be marketed under the brand name Feralmone.