Fools’ gold: Tradition of April 1 trickery goes back centuries

Jokers are wild today, as April Fools’ Day is observed across the United States. For some, nothing w

Toss an old, empty wallet on the sidewalk. Dab some shaving cream on a telephone receiver. Turn back the clock in the kitchen.

Then wait and watch as someone takes the bait: Prepare to pity the fool.

Jokers are wild today, as April Fools’ Day is observed across the United States. For some, nothing will happen. Others will devise elaborate pranks, and wait for reactions.

“The origins of April Fools’ Day are shrouded in mystery, and some of the theories as to its true origin sound as ridiculous as the jokes often played,” said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Nevertheless, while this poor-cousin holiday has never reached the status of Christmas, Thanksgiving or even Valentine’s Day, it continues to hang on with surprising strength. It is, for example, the only day in which major newspapers can publish completely bogus stories without bad repercussions.”

Spring thing

People have been making fools out of brother and sister humans for centuries. Reference books say the custom may have started with the celebration of the spring equinox. Some in the folklore business say pranks on April 1 started in France in 1564, with the adoption of the reformed calendar. Under the new schedule, New Year’s Day had been changed from April 1 to Jan. 1. A person who resisted the change was often targeted for jests on that first day of April.

Another, earlier connection to the day is pegged to Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century story “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Two animal “fools” are featured in the tale — Chanticleer the rooster and a hungry fox — and tricks are played on both. The proceedings take place 30 days — plus two more — from the beginning of March. And that’s April 1.

England began widespread observance of the custom in the 18th century, and other countries also got silly. In Scotland, fooling around on April 1 is known as “hunting the gowk.” The “gowk” is known as the cuckoo, and April fools are considered April gowks.

Corporate jobs

Some of the most celebrated tricks have been corporate jobs.

In 1996, the Taco Bell restaurant chain purchased a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, announcing the company had purchased the Liberty Bell to reduce the country’s debt and renamed it the “Taco Liberty Bell.”

Another fast-food chain, Burger King, played a joke in 1998. The business ran an ad in USA Today, saying people could buy an elaborate Whopper hamburger that was specially designed for left-handed diners. The company recently returned to pranks for advertising, telling clueless customers — supposedly clueless customers — the Whopper had been discontinued.

April capers also have happened in the print and electronic mediums.

Baseball fans may still remember George Plimpton’s 1985 article for Sports Illustrated about New York Mets prospect Sidd Finch, who could throw a 168 mph fastball. In 1997, Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak traded places on their respective game shows. Sajak hosted “Jeopardy!” on that April 1 while Trebek ran “Wheel of Fortune” — where Sajak and Vanna White played as contestants.

Financial shenanigans

The Motley Fool, an Internet financial service, also circles April 1 on the company calendar. For the past 10 years, The Fool has been playing jokes with an investment flavor on people who visit the site.

Chris Hill, director of communications for the Alexandria, Va.-based company, said one of the most successful gags starred mutual funds.

“We’ve been saying for years that most mutual funds do people a disservice, that the fees are too high, the majority of them underperform the market average,” Hill said. On April 1, 1998, the company discovered it had been “wrong” all the time. A legitimate “Fool” chart that indicated the market average had beaten professionally-managed mutual funds 91 percent of the time was simply posted upside down; Fool officials wanted people to believe 91 percent of all mutuals had outperformed the S&P 500 during the past five years. The two charts were posted side-by-side on The Fool’s Web site.

“We got literally thousands of e-mails in a 24-hour period,” Hill said. “Some of them said, ‘I always knew you guys were wrong,’ that sort of thing.”

The Fool relished this prank because it suckered a newspaper. A press release detailing the April revelation is routinely sent during the early morning hours of April 1, and Hill said a copy editor working late at the Raleigh News and Observer in North Carolina got hooked by the false facts. A story announcing The Fool’s financial “blunder” ended up in the April 1 paper.

“The next day, I had several conversations with a very angry business editor,” Hill said. “They had to print a retraction on April 2.”

The Fool’s schemes are always financial in nature. In 1999, during the business “dot-com” boom days, a company called showed up on The Fool’s site. The “company” didn’t sell pies, lemon filling or even pie crusts, just the white fluffy toppings. The Fool touted the meringue boom, and showed customers the stock’s hourly progress on a fictional Canadian stock exchange. Fortune hunters called brokers to buy the nonexistent company. “The stock quadrupled in the middle of the trading day; we announced a stock split,” Hill said. “But then it collapsed, and we had to have a reverse, 1-for-10 stock split.”

Hill says he thinks people like April Fools’ shenanigans. “I think they’re popular for a couple reasons,” he said. “They’re fun, and in general people like to have fun. And two, they’re humanizing. I think most people, when they realize they have been fooled, it’s just sort of a nice, humbling, humanizing moment, and that is part of why we do them every year.”

Hoax historian Alex Boese of San Diego, Calif., sees it another way.

“For pranksters, it’s the one day of the year they have free license to dream up their best stunts — and not get into trouble,” said Boese, the curator of the Internet’s “Museum of Hoaxes” and who has written two books on things that never happened. “They’re not about to let that opportunity pass by. For the rest of us, it’s fun to sit back and observe the insanity they can dream up.”

Boese also says devoting one day to foolishness is good for mental health.

“It reminds us that we’re not as clever as we sometimes like to think we are,” he said.

People can come up with pranks easy enough. The Web site — perfectly named, at least for April Fools’ — offers several ideas for the workplace. They include replacing icing inside Oreo cookies with toothpaste, leaving shoes and pants in bathroom stalls to simulate occupation and posting signs on vending machines requesting liquor or other unusual products.

Debbie DeRosa, senior marketing and licensing manager for New Jersey-based Spencers Gifts, said business always picks up around April Fools’. People want gag gifts. “Fake lottery tickets are the hottest new gag gift on the market,” DeRosa said. “Cause a stir today by giving one to a friend, co-worker or enemy. Let them think that they’ve won $10,000.”

Hill added that each Fool prank comes with a message. The precarious futures of businesses was the lesson behind the meringue company. When The Fool announced plans to start its own lottery — without any monetary winners — the moral of the story was The Fool’s belief that lottery investments are not ideal ways to make money.

The false stories are always timely.

“Last year, the joke was about how we felt CEOs were being unfairly maligned in the wake of all those scandals,” Hill said. “Working with our members of Congress, we were introducing a CEO bill of rights. That was a really fun joke to work on because it gave us the opportunity to highlight just some of the most outrageous things. . . . You look at some of their perks and it’s just incredible.”

Hill doesn’t worry that the annual Fool pranks have become too familiar, too expected.

“We always think that, and yet we always manage to get some people,” he said. “Some years more than others, but we always manage to get a few people.”

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