10 April Fools’ Pranks That Completely Backfired
Another April 1 has gone by, and that means another round of jokes, tricks, and hoaxes. In recent years, well-executed pranks have actually turned into powerful PR tools. Companies know that these antics tend to go viral as many outlets do roundup features of the best high jinks that April 1 has to offer, not to mention all the extra attention on social media.
The key word here is “well-executed,” which is not something that can describe all April Fools’ Day follies. In fact, many of them are rushed, lazy, unoriginal, or just terrible ideas to begin with and they have a tendency to blow up in the pranksters’ faces.
10 The End Of The World
Back in 1940, William Castellini was listening to a Jack Benny radio program when he got an idea. The show mentioned Orson Welles’s now-infamous “War of the Worlds” hoax, which had taken place two years prior as a Halloween prank.
Castellini worked as a press agent for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. His current task was to publicize a new lecture at the planetarium called “How Will the World End?” This happened to take place on April 1. He put the two together and created what would be, in his own head at least, a great publicity stunt.
Castellini issued a press release on March 31 announcing the end of the world as confirmed by astronomers at the Franklin Institute. This would occur at 3:00 PM EST on April 1. The press release specified that this was no prank and provided contact details for further information.
Local radio station KYW picked up the story and read the press release during their broadcast. This led to a wave of calls and letters from frightened citizens whose fear turned to anger when they realized it was all a hoax.
The radio station pleaded ignorance and put the blame on the Franklin Institute. Castellini soon lost his job. Whether KYW was fooled like everyone else or whether they used the press agent as a scapegoat has never been established.
9 The Aliens Invade Jafr
You might wonder how people can still get suckered by pranks on April 1 in this day and age, but it’s important to remember that April Fools’ Day is not a worldwide tradition. Back in 2010, the Jordanian town of Jafr was taken in by a newspaper story claiming that spaceships piloted by 3-meter-tall (10 ft) aliens landed in the desert outside the settlement.
According to Mohammed Mleihan, the mayor of Jafr, people were too frightened to let their children go to school and he considered ordering the evacuation of the town at one point. Dispatched troops found no trace of an alien invasion. Once word reached the town of the prank, Mleihan threatened to sue the Al Ghad newspaper.
The managing editor of the publication apologized for the inconvenience, saying that their goal was to entertain, not frighten people. He didn’t specify, however, why they chose Jafr in the first place. People speculated that it was because the area was notorious for a military base that had housed US military troops and Al-Qaeda terrorists at different points in the past.
8 Eruption Near Boston
People who know the Greater Boston area might be familiar with Great Blue Hill, a mound roughly 15 kilometers (10 mi) southwest of the city proper. It is the highest point in Norfolk County and acts as a popular hiking destination. On April 1, 1980, a news broadcast on WNAC-TV successfully managed to convince nearby locals that Great Blue Hill had erupted.
Reporter Jan Harrison said that ash and lava had begun spraying out of the hill and had hit nearby homes. This was just a few days after Mount St. Helens began acting up, so the fear of a major volcanic eruption was fresh in everyone’s minds.
In fact, Mount St. Helens was partially to blame in this case as the bulletin said that it had caused a geological chain reaction. The news report was interspersed with stock footage of flowing lava as well as edited remarks from President Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts Governor Edward J. King, both of whom underscored the seriousness of the situation.
The bulletin ended with Harrison raising a card that said “April Fool.” But a lot of people must have stopped watching by then because the story caused a panic, particularly in the nearby towns of Milton and Canton. Scores of people called local authorities, and some even began evacuating their homes.
In the end, the station fired executive producer Homer Cilley for failing to “exercise good news judgment.” Prank aside, he also violated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules by showing stock footage without identifying it as such.
7 Google Drops The Mic
Google has developed a reputation as a serious prankster on April Fools’ Day, willing to expend considerable resources to implement features that will only be around for 24 hours. In recent times, they’ve presented a dozen or so jokes each year and most of them turn out to be clever and well thought out. That wasn’t the case in 2016 when Google introduced the Gmail Mic Drop.
A mic drop is a boastful gesture meant as an exclamation point at the end of a performance or speech. Two years ago, Google launched the Mic Drop for its Gmail service which would end an email with a gif of a mic drop—specifically, the one of the yellow minion from the Despicable Me franchise doing it in the Minions movie.
Just to be clear, Gmail didn’t do this automatically for every email sent. There was a separate “Send + Mic Drop” button which was placed next to the regular one. However, Google severely underestimated people’s abilities to use the feature by accident.
To make matters worse, the Mic Drop ended the conversation. To make sure the “dropper” got the last word, it automatically muted all other participants in the email thread. “Everyone will get your message, but that’s the last you’ll ever hear about it” was how Google touted the feature.
As it turns out, even on April 1, some of us have important emails to send that don’t warrant the inclusion of a minion gif. Complaints started pouring in that people accidentally sent the Mic Drop to business contacts or customers. Even worse, they didn’t see any replies because they were disabled. Google quickly removed Mic Drop a few hours later.
6 Topless Stylist Causes Traffic Jam
Barber George Birko thought he had come up with a joke that was both clever and could improve his business. On April 1, 1980, he posted a simple sign outside his barbershop in Columbus, Ohio, that said: “Topless Stylist on Duty Today.” Potential clients and curious onlookers stepped inside his salon to glimpse the stylist and saw Birko hard at work while wearing only a tuxedo tie above the belt.
The barber’s message drew a large crowd—enough that police soon had to show up to see what was causing a traffic jam. They asked Birko to remove the sign. He complied but not before the Ohio Barber Licensing Board caught wind of his endeavor after being tipped off by the vice squad.
Not realizing it was an April Fools’ joke, the board sent down an official for an inspection. After failing to locate any topless women, the inspector ruled that the shirtless barber didn’t constitute a violation and left.
The whole experience turned out to be a real hassle for Birko. Even so, he still saw it as a bit of fun. Moreover, it accomplished its goal—the barber’s business doubled for that day.
5 The New Voyage Of The Titanic
Located on the southeast coast of England, Beachy Head is a Chalk headland known for its beauty and its height. Unfortunately, those same qualities make it one of the most popular suicide spots in the world. However, in 2001, the landmark faced a different problem when an April Fools’ joke caused a massive crack in its cliff face.
It all started with an announcement on Brighton radio. A DJ from Southern FM told his listeners that a replica of the Titanic would be passing by East Sussex and could be seen from Beachy Head. According to the report, the ship was built by a company called AFD. This was short for April Fools’ Day but constituted the only clue (other than the date) that this was a prank.
Predictably, many people fell for it and went to see the ship. Hundreds gathered on the spot and only then realized that they had been fooled. So many people arrived, in fact, that a large 1.5-meter (5 ft) crack opened in the face of the cliff. Local authorities had to evacuate everyone and cordon off the area.
The radio station apologized for its stunt, but the Maritime and Coastguard Agency wasn’t amused by the joke. Given the large turnout, the general risk of landslides, and the heavy fog present that day, the chances for tragedy were very high.
4 Super Mario Bomb Scare
Undoubtedly, Super Mario is one of the most popular gaming franchises in history, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the world instantly recognizes it. Five teenage girls learned this lesson the hard way in 2006 when an April Fools’ joke turned serious enough that they potentially faced criminal charges.
On April 1, the citizens of Ravenna, Ohio, found multiple mysterious boxes scattered around town. The 17 boxes were left in front of important buildings like a courthouse, a church, and a high school. All of them were covered in gold wrapping paper with a large, white question mark displayed on the front-facing side.
Most gamers would recognize these boxes as the iconic question blocks from Super Mario which typically contain power-ups. Everyone else thought they could be explosive devices.
The bomb squad was called in to investigate. They found the boxes to be empty, containing neither explosives nor fire flowers. The teenagers came forward to admit their deed, claiming they got the design from a website with art project ideas.
According to Randall McCoy, the town’s police chief, this was a popular game played throughout the country but there were no other reports of the boxes being mistaken for bombs.
3 A Trip Around The World
A general rule of thumb for pranks and jokes should be to never offer something for free or, at least, at a heavy discount. Whatever it is, people will want it and will get angry when they find out it was all a trick.
Back in 1872, the London-based Thomas Cook travel agency organized the first escorted round-the-world tour. One hundred years later, reporter John Carter of The Times thought of a clever way to honor the occasion as well as play an April Fools’ joke.
He announced that the Thomas Cook agency (still in business) would organize a similar trip again, available for the first 1,000 applicants. The hook—the voyage was available at 1872 prices. That meant 210 guineas, or roughly $575, for a tour around the world. Jokingly, Carter said that all inquiries needed to be addressed to “Miss Avril Foley.”
Unsurprisingly, people missed the clue as they were too ecstatic about the idea of getting a once-in-a-lifetime deal on an exciting holiday. Hundreds waited for hours in queues outside branches of Thomas Cook and directed their confusion and anger at travel agents who were as befuddled as they were.
Eventually, The Times admitted the prank and apologized for any inconvenience created. However, this wasn’t enough to stop the barrage of angry letters. So they had to fire Carter, although he was later reinstated.
2 The Mouse In The Egg
One of the most unfortunate April Fools’ backfires occurred all the way back in 1900 when a prank between a young couple from Binghamton, New York, went wrong. The newspaper article described 19-year-old Edith Walrach as a woman of “very nervous temperament.” Her unnamed fiance was reported to be a “practical joker.” So naturally, he couldn’t let April 1 pass by without playing a trick on his bride-to-be.
On that morning, the unsuspecting Miss Walrach was having breakfast, unaware that her fiance had tampered with her boiled egg. In fact, he had managed to contain a live mouse within the eggshell by putting back the top and covering it with plaster of Paris.
When Miss Walrach broke the shell with her spoon, the mouse scurried away, leaving her screaming. She soon fainted, and a doctor had to be called in. The shock was so great that she suffered from three nervous fits throughout the day. The article doesn’t mention the ultimate fate of the couple. But she was left in critical condition while her fiance was driven wild with grief.
1 To Honor A Killer
Back in 1971, Texas Representative Tom Moore played a prank on his fellow legislators by proposing a resolution to honor a man from Boston who “unselfishly served his country, his state, and his community.” The document went on to say that this person was recognized by the State of Massachusetts for his “noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.”
The resolution passed unanimously. But there was just one problem—it honored Albert DeSalvo, better known as the “Boston Strangler.”
DeSalvo had confessed to being the man responsible for 13 murders, although he was actually imprisoned for multiple rapes. Either way, he was probably not the kind of man the Texas House of Representatives should be honoring. Moore withdrew the resolution after it was passed.
The media presented the story as Moore making a point about legislators who blindly approve or reject measures without reading them, and it was enough to garner international criticism. However, in an interview given decades later, he clarified that this was never the case.
The former representative knew that the bill would be glanced over because it was purely ceremonial and had no legal standing. But he had always intended the stunt to be a simple April Fools’ joke.