On April 1, 1996 a full page ad appeared in six major American newspapers (The Philadelphia Inquirer
, New York Times
, Washington Post
, Chicago Tribune
, Dallas Morning News
, and USA Today
) announcing that the fast food chain Taco Bell had purchased the Liberty Bell. The full text of the ad read:
Taco Bell Buys The Liberty Bell
In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our 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.
In a separate press release, Taco Bell explained that the Liberty Bell would divide its time between Philadelphia and the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine. It compared the purchase to the adoption of highways by corporations. Taco Bell argued that it was simply "going one step further by purchasing one of the country's greatest historic treasures." The company boasted, "Taco Bell's heritage and imagery have revolved around the symbolism of the bell. Now we've got the crown jewel of bells."
Taco Bell's announcement generated an enormous response. Thousands of worried citizens called both Taco Bell's headquarters and the National Park Service in Philadelphia to find out if the Bell had really been sold. Elaine Sevy, a Park Service spokeswoman, was quoted as saying, "We were shocked. We had no idea this was happening. We have just been getting hammered with phone calls from the public."
Among those who called were staff aides from the offices of Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and J. James Exon (D-Neb.).
The Philadelphia branch of the National Park Service arranged a midmorning news conference to assure the public that the Bell had not been sold. "The Liberty Bell is safe. It's not for sale," a spokeswoman announced.
In fact, the Bell could not have been sold by the federal government, as the ad implied, because the federal government did not own the Bell. It was the property of the City of Philadelphia.
At noon on April 1st, Taco Bell issued a second press release in which they confessed to the hoax, describing it as "The Best Joke of the Day." The company also announced that it would donate $50,000 for the upkeep of the Liberty Bell.
Even the White House got in on the joke that same day when press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters that, as part of its ongoing privatization efforts "We'll be doing a series of these. Ford Motor Co. is joining today in an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It will be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial."
Some of the people who called the Park Service or Taco Bell did not realize the announcement was a joke. However, there were many critics who did realize it was a joke, but nevertheless felt it was in bad taste.
National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy described the ad as being "as false as it is cheesy." The New York Daily News
said it "fell flat as a dumbbell."
Mark Schoenrock delivered a scathing critique in the Washington Times
"To appropriate one of the cherished symbols of our national heritage and use it as part of some cheap, thoughtless advertising ploy is totally disgusting. To use this sacred symbol as part of some silly game is an affront to generations of proud Americans who have fought and died for this country's freedom - so proudly represented by the Liberty Bell . Apparently this doesn't matter to Taco Bell officials - or maybe they just don't get it."
Law professor Ronald Collins questioned how far the advertising practices of corporations should be allowed to go: "They [Taco Bell] now have gotten themselves name recognition or association with a national symbol. Where do we draw the line? If this is merely being playful, you have to wonder if next time, someone might do the same thing with a crucifix."
Taco Bell spokesman Jonathan Blum offered this defense of the hoax: "For those who didn't get the joke and care about the bell, just think about how much more recognition we've given it in this one day. There's been a terrific response among people I talked to, and some of them even said, 'Hey, thanks for making me aware of how we need to take care of our monuments.'"
However, scholars have noted that there was nothing new about the Liberty Bell being used in advertising. Robey Callahan has written, "its image can be found in advertisements for everything from insurance to butter, cosmetics to beer, sports apparel to board games."
Nor was it the first time the Bell had featured in a publicity-stunt hoax. In 1885 the Bell was transported from Philadelphia to New Orleans, where it was to be displayed at the Cotton States Centennial. During this period the Bell made many rail journeys throughout the South, as part of an effort to promote national unity following the Civil War. But in New Orleans, publicists for the exposition drummed up interest in the event by planting a story in newspapers claiming that a masked mob had overwhelmed the police escort surrounding the Bell, loaded it onto a truck, and then dumped it over the side of a nearby levee. According to Willis Abbott, who described the hoax in Watching the World Go By
, the false report stirred New Orleans into "a state of wild excitement."
There is also some irony to the Taco Liberty Bell controversy when one considers that much of the popular history of the Bell is more myth than reality. Modern scholars consider its iconic status a creation of mid-nineteenth century writers who invented the tale that the Bell was rung to announce that the Declaration of Independence had been approved. In reality, the steeple of the Philadelphia state house was in disrepair in 1776, so it is doubtful that the Bell (which later came to be known as the Liberty Bell) was rung at all to signal the signing of the Declaration.
Pulling Off the Hoax
The hoax was dreamed up by a team at Taco Bell that included Jonathan Blum, the Vice President of Public Affairs.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer
, Blum claimed that pulling it off was not difficult. He said that the team began fine-tuning the idea and putting the ad together in mid-March.
Fearing the hoax would be leaked, they instructed their ad agency, Paine & Associates, to send the ad to newspapers only two days before publication. Because Paine & Associates was a well-known agency, this did not raise any red flags. Nor did the newspapers examine the ad once they received it.
A spokesman for the Inquirer
said that if they had seen the ad "it probably would not have run."
The CEO of Taco Bell (left) poses with an actor playing Benjamin Franklin next to a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Paine & Associates later boasted that the hoax earned Taco Bell millions of dollars of free publicity:
"More than 650 print outlets and 400 broadcast outlets covered the Taco Liberty Bell story, featuring mentions of the "Nothing Ordinary About It" ad campaign. More than 70 million Americans were exposed to the media event, through radio, print and television coverage, including NBC "Nightly News," "The Today Show," CBS "This Morning," CNN and USA Today. Additionally, more than 50 newspapers nationwide utilized a whimsical AP photo of the Taco Bell CEO next to a replica of the Liberty Bell. Free publicity surrounding the Taco Liberty Bell story generated the equivalent of $25 million in advertising for Taco Bell."
According to Taco Bell's marketing department, their sales spiked upwards by over half-a-million dollars during the week of April 1st, compared to the week before.
References in Popular Culture
In 2004 the Heavy Metal group If Hope Dies
recorded a song titled "Let Freedom Ring (From The Taco Liberty Bell)". It was included as a track on their album The Ground is Rushing up to Meet Us
Taco Liberty Bell Haiku(Submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
Give me liberty
or give me death and add a
taco on the side.
Great American values:
Fast food and freedom.
Links and References
- Robert Frank, "Taco Bell's Gag Over the Liberty Bell Doesn't Leave Philly Cracking Up," Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1996, B6.
- Greg Johnson, "Taco Bell's Ad Was a Burrito Short of a Combination Plate," Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1996, D2.
- "Taco Liberty Bell." Paine PR.com.
- Jones, Richard. (April 2, 1996). "Hold the taco sauce, Liberty Bell is safe." Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Sarasohn, David. (April 6, 1996). "Taco Bell discovers that no one laughs in America any more." The Cincinnati Post.
- Loeb, Paul Rogat. (1999). Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. St. Martin's Press: 77-78.
- Farhi, Paul. (April 2, 1996). "A joke that rang true -- Ad claiming Liberty Bell purchase angers public." Washington Post.
- Harris, Thomas L. (1998). Value-Added Public Relations: The Secret Weapon of Integrated Marketing. McGraw-Hill Professional: 101-102.
- Callahan, Robey. (1999). "The Liberty Bell: From Commodity to Sacred Object." Journal of Material Culture 4(1):57-78.