At a time when stadiums, highways, and cherished football bowl games were getting corporate sponsors, news that the Liberty Bell had been purchased by Taco Bell—and was being renamed the Taco Liberty Bell—rang true.
Taco Bell’s April 1, 1996, prank caught the nation, and the National Park Service, off guard.
It began that morning with full-page ads running in six of the country’s largest newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer. The ad claimed Taco Bell was buying the historic icon in “an effort to help the national debt,” and urged other corporations to purchase national treasures.
A news release issued by Taco Bell showed its chief executive officer with an actor portraying Benjamin Franklin in front of a Liberty Bell replica. The release said the bell would continue to be available to the public, but it would spend half of its time in Philadelphia and the other half at company headquarters in Irvine, Calif.
The phones started to ring at the National Park Service and at Taco Bell headquarters. Among the concerned callers were aides to two U.S. senators. In Philadelphia, the Park Service hastily called a news conference to declare that the bell had not been sold. “The Libery Bell is safe. It’s not for sale,” a spokeswoman said.
By noon, Taco Bell issued another news release admitting the prank and pledging $50,000 for the Liberty Bell’s upkeep.
At the White House, spokesman Mike McCurry got into the spirit of the hoax, telling reporters that Ford Motor Co. was purchasing the Lincoln Memorial, which would be renamed the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
Larry Lipman is a senior editor at AARP Bulletin Today.