Nobody's fool? How The Guardian built the best April Fool's gag ever.

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It has been suggested that working in the media is a fool's errand. Usually by people who would like to work in the media but believed those 'Traffic Warden - a lifetime of adventure' recruitment ads. However, once a year, their derogatory snipe has a ring of truth about it. For, on the first day of April, dozens of news and information outlets race to outdo each other by creating the perfect April Fool's stunt.

Down the decades there have been many classics. In 1957, the BBC ran a television documentary which described the Italian spaghetti harvest. A less sophisticated nation was largely foxed by the film.
Then, just today, Tesco placed a 3D food printer on its web store, offering the device for sale but admitting the current version can't 'do bananas yet'.

Excellent hoaxes these may be (and if you have the inclination you'll spot many others across the print and digital media), but since 1977 they've all been playing catch-up. Because on April 1st that year, The Guardian included a seven page special travel section which introduced the readership to the islands of San Serriffe.

Sans Serriffe's capital city was Bodoni and the island group itself was described as a small archipeligo, its main islands (the biggest being Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse) gathered roughly in the shape of a semicolon, in the Indian Ocean. The country was apparently led by General Pica and had announced celebrations to mark ten years of independence.

In a heavily illustrated run of editorial pieces, readers learned of San Serriffe's history, culture and politics. Adding to the authenticity, the supplement also featured advertising from some of the seventies best known brands. Kodak invited amateur photographers to submit their best shots of the exotic location and Texaco went as far as to run a competition to win a fortnight on the islands as the personal guest of playboy racing driver, James Hunt. These were real ads, sourced through JWT London. Clearly, po-faced 'brand guardians' were a bit thinner on the ground in 1977.

Perhaps inevitably, The Guardian immediately began to receive hundreds of requests from readers impressed by the brochure. But the joke went further as travel agents were approached by enthusiastic holiday-makers and a group calling itself The San Serriffe Liberation Front launched a campaign against the paper for their pro-government slant.

It's possible the only people immune from the hoax were those in the printing trade. Every aspect of the San Serriffe islands was named after words borrowed from print and typography jargon. But any readers unfamiliar with this professional terminology could still find clues as to the articles' true nature.

The leader explained that parliamentary democracy in San Serriffe had been successful "in part", and one photograph was captioned "The many beaches from which terrorism has been virtually eliminated".  This was followed by a section about the islands' education system, telling us "in addition to the mainstream subjects a San Serriffe teenager may well be offered pearl-diving as an A level choice".

Naturally, The Guardian eventually confessed the whole supplement was a put-up job and advertising executive  Philip Davies took credit for inventing the rather wonderful gag. Indeed, I remember my parents keeping copies of the imaginary guide for years.

So whether you've outsmarted the hoaxers this year - or you're beginning to suspect you may have been taken in by a bizarre news story, remember that 36 years ago The Guardian set the standard for April Fool's jokes in the media - and the story San Serriffe still takes some beating. 

You can read more about San Serriffe here.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant




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