April Fool's on Steroids

by Rick Kopec (4/28/11)

I’m sure you’ve seen one of those multi-tiered, cascading fountains in some big bucks hotel or spa where water bubbles up through the top and into a small pool. It overflows into a larger pool, and then into a larger one, and into an even larger pool after that. That’s what the NY Times April Fool’s spoof reminded me of as it spilled from one forum to another; first Shelby and Mustang forums, then to other car forums like Corvettes, Oldsmobiles, etc. From there parts of it were cut and pasted and posted on more general forums for hot rods, sports cars and classic cars of all kinds. Finally, within two days it had traveled to the more general interest or topical forums (NYFirearms, Exploring New Hampshire, Rolex Watch forum, to name only a few). It spread like a fast moving epidemic and was a perfect example of what “going viral” means.

By the time it had gained entrance to the halls of congress, things had ratcheted up a few notches. I was told that it was being circulated among some congressional members and their staffs. Some realized immediately that it was a prank but others weren’t so sure.

It only took a day or two for the e-mails to began pinging. A handful were congratulatory; either telling me what a great prank it was or from those who were fooled for a little while but appreciated having their leg pulled on April Fool’s Day. Then came the tide of what can only be described as hate mail. A few were notably vicious, owing to the fact that they could be written and sent anonymously. They were pounded out by people who were spitting mad at having discovering they had been duped. To make matters worse, their first instinct—which I described as the “Paul Revere affect”—was to immediately forward all or part of the article as a cut-and-paste email to one or more people in their email address book. When it was unmasked as a hoax they were doubly embarrassed. Not only had they been taken in, but everyone they had forwarded it to realized the sender had been tricked. This, of course, had never been the intention; but when something goes viral the original intention is long since forgotten.

BETTER THAN CHRISTMAS

April Fool’s Day is my favorite holiday. It always has been, going back to grammar school when I put chalk inside the felt eraser and watched everyone laugh when the teacher went to erase her blackboard and was rewarded with a wide smear of chalk. As I grew up (or, probably more accurately, “got older” because there are some who would argue that I’ve never grown up) the pranks continued. I went to a Catholic high school and was a member of the AV Club. This provided a handful of us with the opportunity to set up and run film projectors, tape recorders and other school equipment. During my senior year there was a school-wide assembly in the large auditorium and we were directed to set up the PA system; to make sure the microphone on the podium worked and the speakers had enough volume. There was a small room above the auditorium, in the back, which had windows looking down onto the stage. It housed the switches for the lighting and sound. My co-conspirator and I were excused from class early so we could get things set up in the auditorium. To this day, I cannot recall the subject of the assembly but it was important enough to cut into classes and disrupt the flow of the school day. The entire student body silently filed in and took their seats, with lay teachers, priests and nuns sitting on the isles.

Our school’s principal was Father Scull. The name fit him. He was a humorless martinet with a perpetual scowl who was the exact opposite of Pat O’Brien in “Boy’s Town.” Teachers as well as students did their best to give him a wide berth. Everyone settled down to absolute silence as he strode across the stage to the podium. Adjusting the microphone, he began talking—but his microphone was dead. Instead we had a live mike up in the control room and as he began to talk, out through the speakers came, “Ok, you little bastards—now listen up.” After a few heartbeats, during which the teachers and especially Father Scull realized what had just happened, there was total pandemonium. The teachers tried to quiet everyone down and Father Scull seemed powerless without the authority the microphone at the podium gave him. We were already flying down the back stairs trying to escape. We had not planned this far in advance and had no idea where we were going. We just needed to move fast. As we flew around a corner we ran right into the football coach, who also had the title of “Dean of Discipline.” Suffice it to say that we became fixtures in detention for a long time after that and felt fortunate that we were “allowed” to graduate.

But I digress. I look forward to April Fool’s Day for months. The wheels of deviousness first begin turning around New Year’s. Before becoming involved with SAAC I didn’t always have such a large pool of potential fish to drag my hook through. Tricking one person at a time can be fun but it is nothing compared to the possibility of catching dozens or even hundreds in an elaborate hoax. SAAC provided exactly that reservoir of potential targets. You can’t possibly expect to bamboozle everyone, but getting even a few makes it all worthwhile. SAAC members, once hoodwinked, turned out to be good sports.

Before the Internet and the forum began to play such an important role in the club, the magazine was the primary method we had of communicating with members. As such, it was often just a coincidence if an issue was mailed right around the first of April. But email was different. It provided instant communications with every member and a message could be timed to appear in their “in box” right down to the minute.

This, of course, meant that anything emailed to anyone on April First was automatically suspect. So, the timing had to be adjusted to throw people off. Last year we explained the SAAC-35 Olympiad a couple of weeks before April First, and in so doing we caught about a dozen members who were so serious about the idea of competing in the fictitious event that they would have sent in the $200 entry fee in advance if we had asked. April Fool’s was the farthest thing from their mind. When the trap was finally sprung on the First, they were both disbelieving and disappointed.

THE HEAD FAKE

This year’s 4/1 surprise actually started before Christmas when Fran Kress called, asking if I was interested in buying some thong panties with a SAAC logo silk-screened on the front. At first I was noncommittal but he was persistent. He finally rolled me over and I bought a dozen and a half pair. Instead of attempting to offer them for sale to SAAC members, which I thought bordered on being just a little too sleazy, I instead sent them as Christmas presents to the wives of some members who I had known for a long time and who I suspected might be scandalized. Of course, I sent them from Howard Pardee (“…Your Secret Santa found a little something under his tree with your name on it…”) and used his return address. All without his knowledge.

SAAC Chicks With Thongs 2011 calendarSomeone took some pictures of one of the recipients wearing the thong—outside of her jeans—and emailed them to me. That gave me the idea for an April Fool’s Day gag. I would advertise a “SAAC Chicks in Thongs” calendar and see how many members would bite. I convinced some females (who have demanded that they remain anonymous) to pose, wearing the thong outside of their jeans, along with something that could be associated with a particular month: a Christmas tree (“Miss December”), a jack o’lantern (“Miss October”), an American flag (“Miss July”), a shamrock (“Miss March”), etc. Then I put all 12 photos into a one-page PDF. I “advertised” the calendars at the beginning of March—enough time ahead of April 1st so that no connection was made. I only said that we were having them made but did not know how much they would cost (estimated to be in the $5 to $6 range). No money was requested: all I wanted was an email with “calendar” in the subject line. That would allow me to compile a mailing list and I promised to let each person know the cost and date they would be available. I received about 50 responses almost immediately. The hook had been set.

A couple of weeks later I sent each of victims an email thong-1.jpgadvising them of production problems. Two of the photos I had taken, I explained, looked good but when they were enlarged by the print shop they were a little blurry. They had to be re-photographed, causing a brief delay (which would buy a little time to get closer to April 1st). A couple of weeks later I sent out a follow up report. By then the list had grown to almost 100 names. I explained that there was a problem with the plastic spiral binding at the top of the calendars. The plastic was too thin and when they were put in an envelope to be mailed the spirals were breaking into small pieces. They all had to be returned to the printer and thicker plastic spirals had to be substituted. “We’re sorry for the delay… etc. etc.” Thus, the trap was set to be sprung on April First, when a PDF of the supposed calendar would be sent to everyone on the mailing list.

But I also had a few other April Fool's idea knocking around in my head and decided on an April Fool’s e-blast which would be a head fake. The people on the calendar list would see this and think, “Ah HA! There’s the April Fool’s joke so the calendar must be real.”

The e-blast was four pages. One was an item about a perpetual motion Shelby. Another was about a specially modified ‘69 Shelby that got 40 mpg. The third page was built around a photo-shopped picture of Charlie Sheen and Howard Pardee. And the fourth page was a bogus front page from “The New York Times.” The story was totally made up, about Charles Schumer, one of the liberal icons in the Senate, proposing legislation to tax all special interest and collector cars, hot rods and racecars. I tried to include every hot button issue that would incense car enthusiasts that I could think of. Many of these cars were un-registered (and therefore untaxed)—especially race cars. Some states taxed them and some didn’t and the values were usually nothing near the cars’ true values. I envisioned SAAC members reading this, catching their breath and starting to sweat. The real threat was the announcement that all cars would have to be listed on each person’s 1040 tax form. The IRS would commandeer enthusiast clubs and use their records to track down cars and owners through the registries they maintained. Additionally, Schumer’s quotes accused all owners as being “rich” and not paying their fair share of taxes on their assets. This was another hot button that hit home because it was referred to in almost every nasty email.

I decided to lead the eblast with the Schumer article because putting one of the other pages at the beginning would tip everyone off that it was just a joke. The recreated page of the NY Times was dated March 28 and took up three columns. The fourth column had another article about a scientific study revealing that polka dancers in the Pittsburgh area had drastically lower rates of colon cancer than non-dancers. It even included a quote from Rev. Jesse Jackson charging discrimination because no African-Americans were included in the study. This article was so implausible that even someone from another planet would have realized it was a joke. And by extension, so was the Schumer article that preceded it. Or so I thought.

THE “PAUL REVERE AFFECT”

Things took a decidedly different track; however, when some SAAC members read the Schumer article, which caused blood to begin shooting from their eyes. Their reaction was to read no farther and immediately send the article to other car enthusiasts outside of SAAC, or to post it on other automotive Internet forums. This was the “Paul Revere Affect.” Within 48 hours the Schumer article had been spread to almost a hundred different forums and had been seen by who-knows-how-many people. The senders thought they were doing a good deed, much like those who pass on virus warnings: “If you get an e-mail with the subject line of ‘God Bless You’ don’t open it! It will unleash a plague of Internet locusts who will invade your system and devour your files, leaving you with a smoking black screen…”

Some of these warnings have a basis of truth, but does anyone who forwards one really know for sure? Snopes.com serves to debunk Internet stories, and it does an excellent job of separating truth from fiction—if only someone takes the time to do a little research. Sadly, most people do not. They just hit “send.” By the way, there was nothing on Snopes about the Schumer article.

Sending a cautionary warning to everyone on your address list serves two purposes. First it sounds an alarm of potential danger for other computer users (although the chances are that it is a false alarm). Second, it provides a superficial type of greeting to friends and associates in the guise of an important message. No response is expected; it’s just the Internet equivalent of, “I was thinking of you.” The primary purpose is to make the sender, who is alone at his or her keyboard and devoid of person-to-person relationships, feel some sense of attachment with other humans. It’s much like walking past someone and saying, “How are you?” It’s just being polite; you really don’t want to know how the person is. It’s a social acknowledgement because you wouldn’t want them to think you were snubbing them.

So, people took it on themselves to sound the warning. They passed on the bad news to others, who also passed it on. It spread like a grass fire on a windy day. However, once it was taken out of context—once the Schumer article was separated from the rest of the newspaper page and from the rest of the four-page newsletter itself, it was much more difficult to determine it was a hoax. Successful hoaxes have some basis of truth—or what people think is the truth. On some level, to be successful, a hoax has to make sense. And judging from the responses I received, most people believed that Senator Schumer was all too willing to level a hefty tax on collector cars. In fact, when some people were advised that the whole thing was a hoax, they responded, “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t put it past him anyway.” Some threads contained a paste-up of the article, followed by a half dozen angry rants. Then someone would post, “Uh guys — check the date… April First?” The next post following that would continue the rant, as if they either didn’t catch the caveat or didn’t care because it felt good to vent. Schumer’s office received dozens and dozens of calls and emails by car owning hobbyists expressing outrage that their vehicles would suddenly be subjected to high taxes.

If it felt good to vent on a forum, sending me a nasty-gram must have felt even better. I detected two versions. One was that the writer was angry at being fooled and was then made to feel foolish. The second was based in paranoia; there was a fear that the bogus article would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They imagined it would be seen by Senator Schumer, who would then use it as a blueprint to propose its enactment into law. Either way, there was plenty of ammunition to vent spleens. The story was even carried on the Drudge Report for about an hour, until it was discovered to be a hoax. It was then dropped.

GETTING THE TOOTHPASTE BACK INTO THE TUBE

On Monday, April 4th, I received the following e-mail:
“Rick:
I’m Steve McDonald, SEMA’s VP of Government Affairs. First of all, congratulations on a successful April Fool’s Day prank. Through your creativity and the power of the Internet, the Schumer article is now being circulated in the halls of Congress. If you have a moment, I’d like to have a quick conversation about how together we might deal with the aftermath of the prank…”

Things had ratcheted up again. I took a deep breath and called Steve, who turned out to be a very affable and charming guy. I could see why he was SEMA’s lobbyist. I liked him instinctively. He suggested that I might want to compose an explanation—an “It-was-only-a-joke” press release—that could be sent to all SAAC members. I was happy to get his advice, having never imagined that the prank would have grown this kind of legs. And clearly, it would not go away on its own. I immediately began writing. I thought it was important to ask SAAC members who sent the original article to send this explanation to the same people. “…If they forward it to it to others who can forward it to even more people, maybe this second message will catch up with and overpower the first one.”

As soon as I finished, I emailed it to Ron Richards who sent it out to all SAAC members as an e-blast. I also sent a copy to Steve McDonald and within five minutes of receiving it, he sent it out to his email list of 50,000 addresses. I suddenly noted a distinct decrease in incoming negative e-mails.

LIFE IMITATES ART

The adventure was not yet over. On April 6th I received an email from Michael Barbaro, a reporter from “The New York Times.”

“The New York Times would like to write a story about the April Fool’s Day spoof article your organization produced, about how Senator Charles Schumer of New York had proposed a tax on collector cars. The article, which resembled a New York Times article, was good enough that it convinced many car enthusiasts that it was accurate. Many of those who read it called a major car trade group to complain. (Since then, I know you have sent out an e-mail explaining that the article was fake; I have a copy of it.) Our story about that will be small but fun. Can I speak with you, or somebody else from SAAC for my story today?”

New York Times articleI called the phone number on his email and when he answered the phone, the first thing I asked was, “How do I know you are really from the New York Times?” He got a good laugh out of that. As he began asking questions typical of a reporter, I was wondering if this would turn out to be a hit piece, trying to make me look like a villain out of a James Bond movie or something at the other end of the spectrum: a prankster whose stink bomb had exploded in his own kitchen. When the finished article was printed in the newspaper’s Friday, April 8th edition, it turned out to be somewhere in the middle. The reporting was good-natured and it accurately reflected what had happened, without either malice or hyperbole.

The roller coaster ride had come to an end.

For a year, anyway.

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