Sunday, April 1, 2012

The April Fool's newspaper gag that has achieved immortality

DNA's idea of an April Fool's joke is a lead feature in today's "After Hrs." supplement on superstar Salman Khan's finally finding a bride. So tame. And so lame.

Compare it with Mumbai newspaper The Daily's hoax on April 1 sometime in the Eighties. The now-defunct tabloid published a broadsheet edition that day with a banner headline shouting out, "South breaks away". The whole front page, if I remember right, was devoted to the "news" of our four southern states coming together to form an independent republic.

Then there was the elaborate hoax in 1977 in The Guardian, which, like other British newspapers, has a long tradition of April Fool's pranks. That year, the newspaper published a seven-page supplement on the imaginary nation of San Serriffe, maps, pictures, factoids et al, taking in thousands of readers.

Journalists and media students especially will enjoy reading about this hoax: nearly all the names of places and people were taken from printing terms. Veteran Guardian journalist David McKie explained the origins of this gag in a column he wrote nearly 30 years later:

[the] April Fool hoax that the Guardian launched on the world in 1977 has achieved immortality. The notion came from a man called Philip Davies, who ran a department called Special Reports, which produced from time to time a page or pages where a theme, perhaps a country or region was chosen, advertisers responded, and unenthusiastic editorial writers were persuaded to produce the copy.... 

For April 1 1977, Davies suggested a set of pages commemorating a wholly imaginary island. Advertisers, he reckoned, would gladly join in the joke. And they did, in profusion. But the true architect of the project was a famously deft, adroit and inventive leader writer called Geoffrey Taylor, who thought up a group of islands called San Serriffe, the principal constituent parts being Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, which together formed a shape like a semicolon. The capital was Bodoni: the president (ie dictator), a man called Pica, had been victorious in the latest in a string of three coups....

The impact of the seven-page survey was quite astonishing. The office all day was bedlam as people pestered the switchboard with requests for more information. Both travel agencies and airlines made official complaints to the editor about the disruption as customers simply refused to believe that the islands did not exist. Veterans of that time say there's never been a day like it in terms of reader response. Over the past 30 years, San Serriffe has entered the language as a kind of flawed utopia and one American writer has published a series of erudite books about its publishing industry.

Read McKie's column in its entirety to know more about the San Serriffe hoax and about other April Fool's pranks down the years: "Foolish things".

Also read:
UPDATE (April 9, 2012): In its issue of March 31, The Economist had a very interesting piece on how technology would soon allow us to design and build household pets to order. Turns out it was an April Fool's hoax. But it is written so well that it is easy to believe that we will actually be able to use 3D printing to create bespoke pets.

Only a careful re-reading of the article gives the game away. There is this line in the second paragraph: "GeneDupe, as the firm is known colloquially, has previously focused on the genetic engineering of animals." And then there are the concluding sentences: "If all goes well, these will be available by St Valentine’s day. If not, customers will probably have to wait until April 1st of next year." Read the piece in its entirety here Just press "print" and marvel at the Economist's ingenuity.

1 comment:

  1. Such an intelligent prank. I salute Geoffrey Taylor for coming up with such a comprehensive and imaginative research on a fictional island.


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