Next Thursday is April Fools’ Day, an event tailor-made for the practical joker who loves nothing better than to employ the outrageous prank or the outright hoax to make sport of mankind’s innate gullibility.
The origin of this day when deception abounds is obscure, which is to say that if someone professes to know precisely how the tradition came about you’d do well to consider the possibility that the explanation itself is a bit of flimflammery.
That said, the practice is believed by some to have started in Europe as All Fools’ Day, perhaps as a light-hearted way of celebrating the arrival of spring. Today, it is considered a swell time to send someone on a fool’s errand in search of things that don’t exist — a left-handed monkey wrench, say, or a candy bar stretcher — as well as a time for trying to sucker people into believing ridiculous things.
If you were victimized in France on this day you would be ridiculed as a poisson d’avril, or “April fish.” Here you are more apt to be called a gullible dope and left with no recourse but to plot sweet revenge.
A classic April Fools’ Day hoax that sticks in the memory of many people occurred in 1996, when the Taco Bell Corp. announced that it had bought the revered Liberty Bell and would rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. According to the Web site museumofhoaxes.com, hundreds of outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia, where the bell was housed, to express their outrage. Only when Taco Bell announced that it was a hoax did the fury subside.
When Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, was asked by reporters at the White House about the ruse, he told them the Lincoln Memorial in Washington had also been purchased and would henceforth be known as the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.
It was one of the better hoaxes of modern times because, although the proposition was utterly ridiculous, it seemed all too alarmingly possible. Today — when rare indeed is the public venue not named for a corporation, or the professional athlete not a walking billboard for advertisers’ logos — the bogus announcement would be even more believable.
Another deception that people who relish such tomfoolery rate high on their list of all-time whoppers was perpetuated by the British Broadcasting Corp. in 1957. One of the first hoaxes to be aired on television, it featured a report that because of a mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil the Swiss were harvesting a bumper crop of spaghetti. An accompanying film showed Swiss farmers purportedly pulling strands of spaghetti from trees. The BBC switchboard lit up with requests from hundreds of viewers seeking to get into the lucrative spaghetti-growing business.
April Fools’ Day is a time to beware the “news” bulletins one might hear on some of the more bodacious radio talk shows or read in newspapers that have not yet learned the hard way the truth of Abe Lincoln’s take on credibility: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”
In the past, the Bangor Daily News routinely engaged in the April 1 hokum, sometimes messing with readers’ minds by running a doctored “gotcha” photograph. One memorable photo, courtesy of the creative souls in the paper’s photo lab, showed an Air Force fighter jet zooming under the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge connecting Bangor and Brewer.
If memory serves — and let the record show that it very well may not — the inevitable complaints about hot-shot jet jockeys endangering the public welfare and such soon came pouring in. The managing editor, citing Abe Lincoln’s doctrine of lost credibility, issued a cease-and-desist order in perpetuity, and that was that.
Although there is nothing in writing, the ban on trickery in photography remains today, according to Mike Dowd, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Ethical considerations become even more important at a time when advanced technology makes most anything possible, photowise, Dowd said.
The bottom line: Come Thursday, any trolling for April fish will take place on Maine’s waterways rather than in the pages of your favorite daily newspaper.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.