I had just settled into a seat on the Orange Line of Washington’s Metro subway on Monday, April 1, 1996, and opened my copy of The New York Times to read during the 25 minute ride into Washington and my office.
A full-page announcement caught my eye, informing all readers that Taco Bell had purchased America’s Liberty Bell.
Under a large photo of the Liberty Tell, the text read:
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.
A press release that arrived at news organizations around the nation, reporting, in part that:
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.”
By the time I reached my stop under Union Station, after a train change at Metro Center, passengers were talking about the ad. Some thought selling the Bell was a good way to reduce the deficit. Others were mad. The ad also appeared in The Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers.
Complaints flowed in to Taco Bell’s headquarters The National Park Service’s office in Philadelphia dealt with angry callers.
“We were shocked,” said National Park Service spokeswoman Elaine Sevy. “We had no idea this was happening. We have just been getting hammered with phone calls from the public.”
Members of Congress went on the floor of the House and Senate in Washington to slam the Park Service and President Bill Clinton for “allowing this travesty to occur.”
At the White House, press secretary told reporters that the sale was a first part of the administration’s efforts to reduce the national debt.
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.
At noon, Taco Bell issued a second press release, saying “April Fool’s Day” to America. It was, after all, April 1. They called their efforts the “best joke of the day” and said they would be donating $50,000 for upkeep of the Liberty Bell.
Still, some were not amused.
National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy called the ad “as false as it is cheesy.”
In The Washington Times, Mike Schoenrock wrote:
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.
Taco Bell spokesman Jonathan Blum replied:
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.”
Others pointed out that National Landmarks are often used in ads and the image of the Liberty Bell is found in ads ranging “from insurance to butter, cosmetics to beer, sports apparel to board games.”
At Taco Bell fast-food restaurants around the country, sales rose a half-million dollars in first week of April, 1996, which covered the cost of the ad and left over millions in profits.
A great April Fool’s Joke to remember on this April Fools Day — 23 years later.