April Fool’s Hoaxes: From BCE to the Digital Age

Michael Teague  |

Though not a national holiday, it could be that April Fool’s day has a longer and more interesting history than most traditional celebrations.

It is believed that April Fool’s day is a descendant of the world’s oldest prank-playing tradition, which comes to us from the Iranian plateau (more or less modern-day Iran) from as far back as 536 BCE, according to some estimates.

Sizdah Bedar, as it is known in Farsi, comes on the 13th day of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which usually coincides with April 1st or 2nd on the Christian calendar. Sizdah means 13, and Bedar is widely translated as “outdoors”. Indeed, Iranians at home and abroad celebrate this day by going outdoors, having picnics, and in many instances, playing pranks on one another.

The emphasis on joy and mirth derives from Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest recorded religions. Born on the Iranian plateau and well-predating both Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrian belief held it that laughter and mirth were powerful symbolic gestures against negativity and evil, hence the significance of laughter and pranks.

A bit further to the West, April Fool’s day can be variously traced back to the ancient Greek feast of Ascensus, the Roman festival of Hilaria, and the Medieval Feast of Fools (still celebrated to this day in many Spanish-speaking countries). Throughout much of Europe until the late 18th century, New Year’s Day was marked by the feast of the Annunciation, which was celebrated on March 25th, and would in many towns inaugurate a week-long celebration ending on April 1st.

In the 21st century, this tradition has made a rather seamless transition into the digital world, whether or not the notion of celebrating the arrival of spring plays an overt role.

In years past, online news publications have published fake headlines, such as the UK’s Register, who announced last year that Apple (AAPL) planned to patent the rectangle as a means of destroying the competition; or in 2010 when Starbucks (SBUX) announced on their website that they would be introducing two new cup sizes, the 128 oz. Plenta, and the 2 oz. Mirca.

For 2013, so far there has been the UK’s Guardian newspaper, that announced the release of their own “augmented reality glasses to deliver a more liberal world”, a nod to the ongoing speculation that both Google (GOOG) and Apple are soon to release their own versions of such a product.

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Google, for its part, always comes up with nuanced and humorous gags that are in keeping with the company’s image and, these days perhaps, the performance of its shares.

From last year’s “offering” of the entirety of Youtube on DVD, to 2011’s announcement that it was looking to hire “autocompleters” to fill out the autocomplete information on Google searches, the company pokes fun at itself and its users in a way that recognizes our increasing dependence on the internet without making us feel too bad about it.

To be clear, this is not on the level of one of Aeschylus’s comedies, but there is an element of catharsis to it that seems well adapted to the high-speed, abbreviated form of communication and information sharing that has accompanied the pervasiveness of the internet in ordinary, everyday life.

This year, Google rolled out its brand new app, Google Nose. Assuring users that “Smelling is believing”, Google Nose is “The new scentsation in search”, an app that promises you the ability to not only read about and see photographs of what you are searching for, but also to smell it through your mobile device.

A test-run of the app will display a mock-search of, say, anything from Cabernet wine (“Fruity, oaky, that’ll be $22 dollars plus state sin tax”) to Used Napkin (“Leftover pasta sauce with the chunk of the brocolli you picked out of your tooth”).

Users have the option to share the aroma on Google+, of course, and also get a list of recommendations based on what other presumably like-minded users have purportedly sniffed, such as bananas, moon rocks, garbage dumpsters, incense, diapers, and so on and so forth.

This, of course, is a parody of internet-age advertising culture; mobile apps and all the wonders they offer taken to an absurd extreme. Still, it is not in the least unheard of that what is parodied or otherwise allegorized through works of satire or science fiction ends up coming true in some way. And with mobile devices increasingly mediating reality, who knows what the reaction will one day be when looking back on this year’s prank?

Other notable 2013 pranks so far include:

Netflix (NFLX) – the company has lampooned its own often strangely-worded categories by coming up with new ones such as “Movies Starring Estelle Getty and Some Other Guy”, and “Reality TV About People With No Concept of Reality”.

American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) – announced a new product in spray-on jeans.

Proctor & Gamble (PG) – the company has announced a new bacon flavor of its Scope brand mouthwash.

Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. – the airline, a privately-owned venture between the Virgin Group Ltd. and Singapore Airlines Ltd., advertised the first glass-bottomed plane, coinciding with the airline’s “first ever domestic service to Scotland”.

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