In 1996 it was announced in 5 major newspapers that the Taco Bell corporation purchased the historic symbol of American freedom, the Liberty Bell. Yes, the very bell that today is encased by its own museum in that ‘cradle of liberty,’ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the same bell that sits across from the iconic Independence Hall where it once hung and rang; where millions of visitors come to admire a quintessential example of American iconography each year. According to the articles announcing the acquisition, the sale of the famed bell by the U.S. government to Taco Bell corp was in an effort to “help the national debt.” This was, after all, just weeks following a lengthy government shutdown due to a budget disagreement and crisis. To many, even worse than the prospect of a priceless American treasure being sold, however, was its intended renaming: The Taco Liberty Bell.
Concerned callers jammed the phone lines of both the company’s headquarters and the National Park Service, the caretakers of the bell. Anxious and alarmed Americans just couldn’t believe that such an artifact could be sold to a for-profit corporation. To them it seemed grotesque and just plain wrong.
What all of the panicked Americans failed to realize was the date of the announcement: April 1, 1996. As in, April Fool’s Day. As in, a hoax. Taco Bell boasted it as the biggest stunt since Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938 frightening throngs of Americans.
The National Park Service was not amused by the publicity stunt, but the White House was. It subsequently “announced” the sale and renaming of the Lincoln Memorial to the Ford Motor Co. It would now be called the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
As an educational travel company invested in the places and things that tell America’s richly layered story, our response to such “announcements:” May they always be hoaxes.