Long before social media, brands were using April Fool’s Day for marketing purposes. And to do it, they used the OG Twitter — newspapers.
One of the best examples of a national brand using April Fool’s Day to draw attention happened in 1996 and was focused around Philadelphia. At the time, the national debt was skyrocketing and drunk fast food chain Taco Bell was apparently looking for a way to drum up some controversy.
So on the morning of April 1, 1996, readers of The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and USA Today woke up to a full-page ad with the headline “TACO BELL BUYS THE LIBERTY BELL.”
Underneath it, the ad read: “In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country’s most historic treasures. It will now be called the ‘Taco Liberty Bell’ and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”
Naturally, the city lost its collective mind by 9 a.m.
“This was a complete shock,” a spokeswoman for the Park Service’s Philadelphia office told The Inquirer at the time. “I was drinking a cup of coffee and I opened up the paper, and there it was. I believe I started hyperventilating.”
The White House released a statement about the joke. Taco Bell’s phone lines started blowing up. The newspapers became inundated with calls from readers who understood the prank but were angry about the messaging.
It was an ad campaign that went immediately viral.
According to the agency Citizen Relations — then known as Paine PR, the company that helped Taco Bell execute the stunt — Tom Brokaw reported on the story for four minutes and “The Today Show” and “CBS This Morning” both did live shots from the Liberty Bell.
And it wasn’t just the newspaper ads that made people believe the “Taco Liberty Bell” was real.
“Citizen conducted a variety of tactics to make this rumor seem like a legitimate business deal,” according to the agency, “including issuing a press release, a satellite video feed, a staged AP photo, seeding Internet chat rooms, a full-page ad for five top daily newspapers, mock radio call-ins and more.”
By noon, the fast food chain put out a press release taking responsibility for the nationwide prank and pledging to donate $50,000 to the upkeep of the Liberty Bell. Meanwhile, the executives at Taco Bell were laughing all the way to the proverbial bank. More than 600 stories were written about the publicity stunt by more than 400 outlets across the country — a good way for the taco chain to kick off its official “Nothing Ordinary About It” ad campaign.
“It’s been a great day,” then-Taco Bell spokesman Jonathan D. Blum told The Inquirer. “This has been all about good-natured fun and tomfoolery. This was perfect for us, perfect for our campaign.”