True Lies

City Weekly

17 April 2008


Sydneysiders have always enjoyed a good hoax, writes Tatyana Leonov.

On a foggy Saturday morning just over 30 years ago, Dick Smith arrived in Sydney Harbour towing an iceberg the size of a boat. The entrepreneur and adventurer had been planning to bring back ice from Antarctica for a while, with the possibility of using it for fresh water. The media had been asking consistently when this was going to happen, so the quick-thinking Smith made it happen. At 3am, with the help of fellow inventor, Hans Tholstrup, he built the iceberg out of shaving cream and foam.

A couple of hours later Smith’s staff started calling all the local radio stations and newspapers enquiring about the big object making it’s way into Sydney Harbour. Local radio stations provided exciting coverage of the event as the berg got closer to shore. When it was well into the harbour its secret was finally revealed. As it began to rain, the foam and shaving cream that the iceberg was made of washed away and white plastic sheets uncovered. The joke was on the media, the people, everyone. It still rates as one of the best hoaxes ever perpetrated on Sydney – and it’s hardly the only one.

On the April Fools’ Day just gone, Virgin Blue advertised a ‘No Chair Fare’, with calf massages included for flights over two hours. “We don't mind a little bit of mischief making on April Fools’ Day. It is the ideal day for us to have some fun and express ourselves at the airline,” said Virgin Blue’s chief executive Brett Godfrey. “The joke, however, was on those who didn't fall for it, because those who logged on and to buy a ‘no seat fare’ still got half price tickets – and a seat to boot.”

That same day, former Home & Away actor Kate Ritchie told her Nova 96.9 listeners that she would play a guest role in Neighbours, while Google announced ‘gDay’ ­– a new feature that could access websites before they were created.

Not all jokes are taken lightly or as intended. Kiwi radio station The Rock had to apologise to listeners for their prank. On March 31 last week they began to promote a free Foo Fighters concert. When people began booking flights and taking leave from work, everything went haywire. Fans, promoters and labels were furious at the station. In 2003 a similar scenario occurred in Tennessee when a free Eminem concert was announced. Hundreds of fans gathered, waiting in anticipation for the performer and had to be held back by police when they found out there was no concert.

Sydney radio stations love hoaxes, and as many people listen to radio all day, it’s arguably the ideal medium for them. In 2006 Triple J celebrated ‘Urban Month’ by vowing to only play hip-hop for the entire month. “What the hell is with this Urban Month crap? I listen to Triple J to get away from that crap and now it is being played here as well,” wrote a listener on the Triple J forums. That same year, 702 ABC Sydney weekend presenter Simon Marnie conducted the last hour of his show from a submarine in Sydney Harbour that departed from the Australian National Maritime Museum. The submarine picked up fellow presenter Tony Eastley and a 702 listener. The program ended when a sea monster attacked the submarine.

In 2002, Triple M’s breakfast show announced that Athens had lost the 2004 Olympics because they were not ready in time and that Sydney would be hosting it again. And it’s not only Sydney. In 2005 a WA radio station played the same song 10 times over. The kept informing listeners a new song was coming up. This, however, was not the case.

The BBC television program Panorama ran one of the greatest hoaxes of all time in 1957. They showed Swiss farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees. A large number of people contacted the BBC wanting to know how to grow their own spaghetti and were advised to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.” In 1965, the BBC aired an ‘interview’ with a man who had invented a new technology called ‘Smellovision’. This ahead-of-its-time invention allowed viewers at home to experience the aromas produced in the TV studio. The man brewed coffee and cut up onions for the cameras. Funnily enough, viewers phoned up claiming they could ‘smell’ the aromas from their living rooms. Last week, the BBC showed footage of flying penguins. The ‘Beeb’ is one media source that has been laughing for decades.

Laughter, of course, is the key. Five days a week we get up at the same time, go through the same morning routine and arrive at the same place for work. A good hoax or prank is a reminder to laugh at ourselves to laugh and not take life too seriously.