It seems that the world has no idea how April Fools’ Day started. No joke. Many of us partake in holidays that we may not know the meaning behind, but as a culture we support the cause and follow tradition. While there is a variety of speculation tied to April Fools’ Day, says English pranksters began popularizing the annual tradition in 1700 by playing practical jokes on each other.

Over time, the tradition has been carried into modern times. Whether it’s a practical joke on a teacher, changing your family’s clocks or hoaxing an entire city, April Fools’ Day lives on.  Today, it seems like every single brand goes in on the trickery. Whether it’s through TV, social media, advertising, or even a stunt, they capitalize on the opportunity as it’s a chance to evoke humor while promoting their brand in an unconventional way.  As we near this year’s holiday, I revisited three of the most epic April Fools’ Day moments in history and compare them to today’s world.

1698: Let’s Wash Some Lions

National Geographic notes that the earliest April Fools’ Day hoax on record was in 1698 when Londoners were advised to go see an annual washing of the lion’s ceremony at the Tower of London. Hundreds showed up. And, as you’ve likely predicted, there were no lions. The street prank worked so well that it continued year after year.

  • This experiential stunt showed that simple word-of-mouth communication sparked intuition and action, which ultimately led to a largely confused and hoodwinked community. This was hundreds of years ago, but I can absolutely see how it transcends into 2017. People are still intrigued by the unknown and unconventional and will flock to a stunt-like experience, especially if a friend suggests it.

 1957: Spaghetti on Trees

Another British hoax! Have you ever thought that spaghetti could grow on trees? In 1957, BBC properly fooled the English with a 2+ minute television broadcast segment about the “great spaghetti harvest,” which showed girls pulling pasta off tree branches and placing it into baskets. Not only did BBC do the pre-work to place spaghetti on trees, the trees were in Switzerland. They literally produced an entire segment in another country to keep the joke on the down-low. Talk about going to great lengths for the ultimate prank. Per the Huffington Post, the broadcasters confessed to the prank at the end of the segment. Although, an influx of calls continued to roll in and the jokes didn’t stop there. Operators responded to every call with “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”


  • BBC went all in for this trick. Paid actors, production in another country, airing the spot on their broadcast channel, it’s brilliant. It also captured the attention of many families because their primary source for gathering nightly news was through a television broadcast during this time. Looking at 2017, this type of trickery likely wouldn’t be perceived well. A lighthearted and playful joke during nightly news, I can already hear the frustration. Plus, I can’t imagine anyone approving the budget to put forth this kind of effort for a prank. Different times.

1996: The “Taco Liberty Bell”

Let freedom ring. Let your chalupa sing. The epic April Fools’ Day joke from Taco Bell goes down as one of the most legendary pranks in history. On the 1st, the fast-food chain claimed to have purchased the Liberty Bell to “reduce the country’s debt.” According to Time Magazine, Taco Bell placed a full-page ad in six major newspapers to introduce the newly named “Taco Liberty Bell.” Insert. Freak out. The National Park Service in Philadelphia, as well as Taco Bell headquarters, was flooded with complaints.

liberty bell

  • This is where we see brands starting to get creative. Taco Bell purchased ad buys in major newspapers where they knew eyeballs would see it and immediately react to it. Suddenly, everyone is talking about Taco Bell – exposure is at the forefront – so much so they had to issue another press release claiming it was all a joke. According to Priceonomics Taco Bell shelled out big dollars for the ad buys, as well as payment for their agency, who later touted the incident had earned the brand “about 25 million” in free publicity. In the 90’s, leveraging top-tier print publications as an advertising source for your news, whether real or fake, was the way to get a message out to your audience. Taco Bell’s sales jumped about $600,000 during the first week of April following the joke. As the media landscape has drastically changed over the past 10 years, it’s safe to say this kind of campaign just wouldn’t be as successful using print as the main medium – though social media could be a different story.

In the 2010’s, we’ve seen brands leverage social media as a primary way to fool audiences. Even tech companies like Google and entertainment channels such as Netflix get in on the action by tricking users.
blue moonnetflix

As we near April Fools’ Day 2017, we’ll see what witty campaigns succeed and fail.  One thing to note is that it does seem to be more challenging to pull off a campaign tied to April Fools’ Day. Consumers are in the know now more than ever – consumed by media – aware of it all! In my eyes, it’s harder to trick us!

Let’s see who will pull it off this year.