Public-private partnerships are a long-standing way for corporations to reach consumers while the public coffers find some economic relief. Throughout the United States, for example, you’ll see signs along the highway noting that a particular company or organization has “adopted” that stretch of road. The benefactor pays for the some of the maintenance of that section of road (e.g. garbage cleanup) and, in exchange, gets a small sponsorship message included for passing drivers to see. While some object to this as the on-going commercialization of nearly everything, others see this as an acceptable way to defray the costs of public thoroughfares and attractions.
Eighteen years ago today, though, one company went too far — at least based on the public outcry. That company was Taco Bell, and as seen in the ad below, they announced their purchase of an American landmark: the Liberty Bell.
The Liberty Bell — the unbranded version — is an artifact from the Revolutionary War period which now, as always, is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Legend has it that the bell rang to mark the Second Continental Congress’s vote to declare independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, but that’s almost certainly not true. Regardless, by the mid-1850s, the Bell became a symbol of freedom, one which has stuck through the last century and a half.
Taco Bell wanted the Liberty Bell to also become a symbol of financial freedom, apparently, because on this date in 1996, the company blanketed the nation with hundreds of thousands of dollars in newspaper ads announcing their new acquisition. In exchange for a sizable but undisclosed donation intended to offset America’s national debt, Taco Bell had acquired the Liberty Bell. The renamed-”Taco Liberty Bell” was to remain in Philadelphia most of the time, but as part of the deal, Taco Bell would relocate it for a few weeks each year to its headquarters in Irvine, California. The company hoped that their efforts would lead to other corporations following in kind — to “do their part,” as the ad said, in reducing the national debt.
Many citizens were, of course, outraged. Thousands called either the National Park Service or Taco Bell (or both) to complain. The National Park Service didn’t seem to know what was going on, though; a Philly-based spokesperson for the organization told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she was caught by surprise herself, only finding out about the decision when she saw the ad in her local newspaper. Taco Bell’s corporate phones were receiving thousands of calls as were newspaper offices across the country, as Americans were trying to figure out how such a thing could possibly happen. Thankfully, most people didn’t bother to call or complain — they knew what had occurred. Many who saw the ad also noticed something at the top of the page — the date. It was April 1st — April Fools’ Day. Taco Bell’s ad was a prank, and the Liberty Bell wasn’t ever for sale. The fast food chain admitted as much later in the day.
Not everyone was pleased by the joke, of course, but most were good-spirited about it. Philadelphia’s mayor at the time jabbed back, noting that the city was investing $10 million to $15 million in a new pavillion and visitors center for the attraction and invited Taco Bell to pick up that tab. (Taco Bell passed on this request, but to its credit, had already agreed to donate $50,000 to the Bell’s maintenance.) The White House also got in on the joke; its spokesperson, Mike McCurry, joshed that the nation “will be doing a series of these things. Ford Motor Co. is planning an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It’ll be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”
From the Archives: Dormant and Tired: One of the most elaborate pranks ever pulled.
Related: The self-described “ultimate prank kit.”