David Paine probably will be best remembered as the creator of MyGoodDeed, the nonprofit that supports 9/11 as a federal day of service. But what may have been his crowning professional achievement was his role in a feat of advertising derring-do that set the nation abuzz 25 years ago this week.
The Fake News About Taco Bell Buying The Liberty Bell Rang True In 1996
Readers of The Philadelphia Inquirer opened their papers on a dreary spring Monday morning to see a full-page ad bearing the image of the Liberty Bell and the headline: “Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell.”
Switchboards (remember those?) lit up at The Inquirer, at the National Park Service, at five other papers that ran the ads, at talk-radio stations, and at Taco Bell’s California headquarters with howls of outrage from aggrieved patriots who apparently had failed to notice the day’s date. It was April 1, 1996: April Fools’ Day.
Paine had gone and dropped the chalupa, all right. He created “an ad man’s War of the Worlds,” as The Inquirer reported the next day, describing the fallout from the spoof.
Here’s how it happened
Paine and his company at the time, PainePR, worked for Taco Bell. Jonathan Blum, who ran Taco Bell’s marketing, hired PainePR to help launch a campaign called “Nothing Ordinary About It” to appeal to younger people with a rebellious streak.
Paine and his crew visited Taco Bell’s executive lounge to brainstorm with Blum. “We must have spent about two weeks sitting there and couldn’t come up with a damn thing,” Paine said.
Then, Paine said, someone noticed that April 1 was coming up, “Jonathan brought up an April Fools’ Day idea, and then we started playing with the name Taco Bell, writing everything down that had the word bell or taco in it. One of us said, ‘Well, what if we did something with the Liberty Bell?’ We just looked at each other.”
The lightbulb went off.
Paine said they sent the idea to Taco Bell’s ad agency, Bozell, for review. The copy read: “In an effort to help reduce the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of the 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.”
Bozell paid $41,958 to place the ad in The Inquirer, which would be $70,335 in today’s dollars. (With newspaper circulation depressed, the same weekday ad today would cost $21,591, according to the newspaper’s current ad department.) The ads also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and USA Today.
Then came the hard part: slipping the ads past skeptical eyes. Slick timing helped. The ads were received on Saturday, March 30, likely getting only a glance because they were full pages, arriving late, with little actual text, and created by a national agency. They were sent off to be made into printing plates for Monday morning press runs.
To supplement the ads, PainePR needed to distribute a Taco Bell news release announcing the “purchase.” Surely, they thought, someone at Business Wire, the popular paid service that disseminates press releases to journalists, would reject it. “We had to find a bureau somewhere in the middle of nowhere to take it on its face value,” Paine said. Sunday night, March 31, PainePR sent the news release.
“I remember what Jonathan said, just after the news release went out. He said, ‘Well, tomorrow morning, one of two things is going to happen: Either we’re all going to be heroes, or we’re all out of a job.”
The game was on.
The PR person for the National Park Service later said she started hyperventilating at her kitchen table when she saw the ad. A midmorning news conference was convened to deny the report, which had spread to radio shows. Everybody was talking about it.
Media outlets lapped it up, and finally, humor set in. At the White House, Bill Clinton spokesperson Mike McCurry deadpanned: “We’ll be doing a series of these things. Ford Motor Co. is planning an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It’ll be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”
At his own news conference, after Taco Bell issued a statement at 11 a.m. to fess up, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell said he called Taco Bell’s CEO to hit him up for cash toward the construction of a new Liberty Bell pavilion. (The bell was then housed in a different location along Market Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets.) Taco Bell donated $50,000 for the preservation and upkeep of the bell, which is city property but maintained by the feds.
“We didn’t know how people would respond,” Paine said. “We did everything we could to push it out there and roll that pebble down the hill. We started to see it snowballing, and I think it did what we thought it would do. Did we think it was going to get as big as it did? No. I don’t think we ever thought that it was going to backfire because, from our perspective, if it backfired, it was a win for Taco Bell. … There wasn’t any kind of negative backlash. Afterward, people thought it was the coolest thing ever. I think young people like the fact that we pulled a fast one on the establishment.”
What made it really great, Paine said, was a feature on the NBC Nightly News. “Tom Brokaw came out and did a segment that night where he told the whole story as if it was true, up until the very last moment. He said, ‘And guess what? It’s just a joke.’”
Why did it work?
“It hit at just the right moment of time in our country’s history,” Paine said. “Companies were beginning to sponsor things. They were putting their name on stadiums. At the time, it was just becoming controversial. And so the idea that [Taco Bell] could, in effect, purchase or sponsor the Liberty Bell seemed like a really fun, creative, and goofy idea that would appeal to their young audience. Be a little antiestablishment, which is exactly what we were going for in terms of the Taco Bell brand.”
Paine said it also played off of the emerging and controversial trend of companies “sponsoring things that Americans didn’t want them to sponsor. The federal debt deficit was really significant as an issue with that particular moment, so we were able to make a somewhat legitimate-sounding claim that the purchase of the Liberty Bell was to aid in the federal deficit. It was just plausible enough to work. And the media was just naive enough at that moment.”
Could it happen today?
“If at the time we did it, you had today’s social media, it could have been bigger than ever,” Paine said, musing that “it could have gotten really out of hand on Twitter. And you would’ve run the ads on Facebook and all that other stuff.”
Paine said he could not send the news release to Business Wire now. In 2002 — and not because of this spoof — Congress passed the Sarbanes — Oxley Act, which calls for greater corporate responsibility and transparency. Taco Bell was then a unit of PepsiCo, and “there’d be no way a publicly-traded company could or would ever put a news release across the wire that would announce something that wasn’t true because of the effect on stock price,” Paine said.
Today’s sensibilities just would not permit a big corporation from attempting such a hoax now, said Grace Capuzzo, vice president of brand strategy for Big Idea, a New York advertising and marketing agency. Not too long ago, brands were winning awards for similarly clever, well-executed stunts, such as Tinder’s 2019 announcement that it would bake “height verification” into its app, leading to mass hysteria among 5-foot-10 men everywhere.
So yeah, Height Verification is an April Fools’ Day Joke. But what’s not funny is lying about who you are on Tinder. So stand tall…or short (we don’t care) and embrace who you are. https://t.co/D6Bnp9oTiH
— Tinder (@Tinder) April 1, 2019
These days, she said, “brands are shunning April Fools’ and are terrified to pull pranks, partly because of [sensitivities] around COVID-19 and partly out of fear of being canceled.” How far is too far anymore? Who wants to take the chance of destroying a brand through a #fail?
Just as the digital world wrested control of information from newspaper publishers, everyday people can create and execute their own campaigns — not all, of course, with good-natured intentions and outcomes. Capuzzo called to mind misinformation campaigns such as Pizzagate and the Flat Earth Society that share elements with a fake ad campaign.
Paine, thinking back to the Taco Bell stunt, chuckled. “It was the original fake news,” he said.
The upshot? Taco Bell’s sales reportedly spiked by $1 million over the next two days after the ads ran. All for thinking outside the bun.
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Article Source: Naviga News Edge