The 1990s was the decade of grunge, Bill Clinton, and the “information super highway.” And, it turns out, a fair share of notable hoaxes. Today we look back at seven of the most notable hoaxes of the 1990s.
#7. 1990: Buckwheat Imposter
ABC’s 20/20 ran a segment on October 5, 1990 in which they claimed to have found the actor who played Buckwheat in the Our Gang comedies. They interviewed a man who was bagging groceries in Tempe, Arizona. He claimed to have changed his name – and refused to sign autographs – because being Buckwheat interfered with his job.
Our Gang fans, however, knew something was amiss, as William “Billie” Thomas – the actor who played Buckwheat – had died 10 years earlier. Upon learning that they had been duped, the show’s producer admitted it was a “lapse in research” and an apology was issued the following week.
The impostor, Bill English, had apparently assumed the identity of Buckwheat decades earlier. In an interview on A Current Affair, English maintained his claim, stating, “I know I’m Buckwheat.” He also stated he was the first of three actors to play the role. George Mcfarland, who played Spanky alongside Thomas in the Our Gang films was interviewed in the same segment, and insisted that English was an impostor.
Thomas’ son told the press, “I just can’t believe ’20/20′ didn’t investigate this better. I’m somewhat dumbfounded by the whole thing.” The son later filed a lawsuit about ABC.
#6. 1994-1996: Good Times Virus
In 1994, Internet users warned of a computer virus which was supposedly circulating as an email attachment that would destroy all of the data on computers that downloaded it. The virus would also send copies of the malicious message to every recipient in the computer’s address book. Infected systems would also be given a difficult math problem which would supposedly overheat the processor. The headline of the alleged email was said to be “Good Times” or “Goodtimes.” One warning read:
FYI, a file, going under the name “Good Times” is being sent to some Internet users who subscribe to on-line services (Compuserve, Prodigy and America On Line). If you should receive this file, do not download it! Delete it immediately. I understand that there is a virus included in that file, which if downloaded to your personal computer, will ruin all of your files.
On January 1, 1997, however, hacker organization Cult of the Dead Cow stated that no such virus existed, and took responsibility for hoax.
The Good Times meme was launched by cDc to prove the gullibility of self-proclaimed “experts” on the Internet.
Any chickenhead would see through the Good Times virus message as the merest wisp of smoke that it is, while the so-called experts ran around in circles, beside themselves in self-induced panic.
Even though there was no virus, it is still listed on Symantec‘s website, categorized as a “hoax.”
#5. 1996: Taco Liberty Bell
Taco Bell used April Fool’s Day 1996 to play prank as part of a creative marketing ploy in 1996. The company took out advertisements in several prominent U.S. newspapers, announcing that they had bought the Liberty Bell as a way to help reduce the country’s debt, and would in turn name it Taco Liberty Bell.
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.
Taco Bell came clean by noon that day, and wire reports on April 2 noted that, “No, Taco Bell didn’t buy the Liberty Bell.” The company donated $50,000 toward preservation and maintenance of the bell.
#4. 1992: Grunge Speak
Following the cultural bombshell that was Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, the so-called grunge revolution was in full swing across America by 1992. It was then that a New York Times reporter prodded a 25-year old receptionist at Sub Pop Records about “grunge code” spoken by the youth in grunge’s epicenter of Seattle. Megan Jasper, perhaps annoyed by the media obsession with grunge at the time, made up a list of nonsense “grunge translations” and handed them over to the reporter.
“I wrote down a bunch of words that rhymed and mixed them up to come up with the answers but then I got bored and just started making up things that my friends and I used to say as jokes,” she said years later.
To her surprise, her fake glossary – along with her name – appeared in a sidebar in the Times next to a feature on grunge. The list, titled “Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code” read:
- Wack Slacks: Old ripped jeans
- Fuzz: Heavy wool sweaters
- Plats: Platform shoes
- Kickers: Heavy boots
- Swingin’ on the flippity flop: Hanging out
- Bound-and-hagged: Staying home on Friday or Saturday night
- Score: Great
- Harsh realm: Bummer
- Cob nobbler: Loser
- Dish: Desirable guy
- Bloated, big bag of blotation: Drunk
- Lamestain: Uncool person
- Tom-tom club: Uncool outsiders
- Rock on: A happy goodbye
An author at the journal Baffler called out the list as a hoax, and editors at the Times at first thought that publication was behind the prank. They demanded a response, to which Baffler responded.
Having seen The New York Times’ misinterpretation of the Grunge ‘phenomenon,’ we are hardly surprised that you fail to understand the nature of this continuing prank.
We at the Baffler really don’t care about the legitimacy of this or that fad, but when The Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Thing piddles on its leg, we think that’s funny.
Ms. Jasper said she originally defended her fake list because she was afraid the reporter who interviewed her might lose his job. Some of the words from Jasper’s list are occasionally used or cited when referencing the grunge scene of the 1990s.
#3. 1995: Alien Autopsy
A British producer named Ray Santilli claimed to have obtained footage of an autopsy performed on an extraterrestrial being shot in the late 1940s. The film ended up in the hands of producers at Fox television, who aired a highly-publicized special entitled Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction hosted by Jonathan Frakes on August 28, 1995.
The 17-minute grainy, blurry, black and white film had allegedly been stashed away for decades by a retired military cameraman. It showed medical examiners purportedly dissecting a humanoid which was discovered at the site of the Roswell, New Mexico “flying disc” crash.
The special was so popular that it was re-aired several more times, with larger audiences upon each showing.
In 2006, Santilli admitted the film was fake, but insisted that it was based on a real film that he saw in 1992. That film, he said, had degraded over time beyond the point of usability. The “restoration” as Santilli described it, included a dummy created by sculptor John Humphreys.
#2. 1988-1990: Milli Vanilli
The origin of this hoax dates back to 1988, when producer Frank Farian recorded an album consisting of musicians that he didn’t feel would be easy to market. This prompted him to enlist models Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan to front the group, despite the fact that they had no known musical abilities. Rob & Fab, as they were called, became the faces of Milli Vanilli, but had nothing to do with the music on the act’s acclaimed recording.
Milli Vanilli’s album Girl You Know It’s True was a smash in the U.S., selling 7 million albums in its first year, residing at #1 on the Billboard albums chart for two months, garnering five top-five hits, and winning the group a Grammy for Best New Artist in early 1990.
In support of the album, Rob and Fab continued to lip-sync at appearances and concerts, which is when rumors began to circulate that the guys weren’t really singing. During a live MTV performance, the backing track for “Girl You Know It’s True” skipped and began repeating the chorus over and over. The guys played it off for a moment, but then ran offstage.
As the truth behind Milli Vanilli became apparent, Rob and Fab approached Farian and demanded to sing on their next album. Farian declined, and instead revealed the truth behind Milli Vanilli in an interview on November 14, 1990. Five days later, Milli Vanilli was stripped of their Grammy, which earned them a place in Guinness World Records as First Grammy-winning artist to be stripped of their award. Arista Records quickly removed the album from its catalog, making it one of the highest-selling albums ever to be removed from print.
Farian released a second album under the name “The Real Milli Vanilli,” this time showing the actual artists on the cover. One of the singers has been described as a Rob/Fab “lookalike” named Ray Horton. Rob & Fab also put out an album of their own, but it was poorly marketed and by then their reputation had been destroyed. It only sold about 2000 copies.
An attempt to reconcile Farian with Rob and Fab was cut short in 1998 when Pilatus was found dead due to an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Morvan has worked as a musician and DJ in the years since.
The fact that lip-syncing and auto-tune is so pervasive now is perhaps a sign of how much things have changed over the past 25 years.
#1. Bill Gates Sharing His Fortune
Before social media, email was the primary method of internet communication. Email, however, generally lacked robust group interaction we see today with social media on sites such as Facebook, meaning criticism was somewhat muted. And thus we end our list of great 1990s hoaxes with a message that circulated primarily via email at the end of that decade: The Bill Gates “sharing his wealth” chain letter.
In the late 1990s, Bill Gates’ wealth had achieved legendary status, and it came as no surprise when fake emails began to circulate that suggested the billionaire wanted to share his wealth. Early versions claimed that Gates was experimenting with an email tracking system, and would pay anyone who shared it $1000. Although many recipients of the chain letter read it with some skepticism, it was often forwarded in large numbers “just in case” it was real.
The original email evolved into a several varieties by 1999. One version claimed Microsoft and AOL had merged and wanted to keep Internet Explorer as the web’s main browser. “For every person that you forward this e-mail to,” the message wrote, “Microsoft will pay you $5.00, for every person that you sent it to that forwards it on, Microsoft will pay you $3.00 and for every third person that receives it, you will be paid $1.00. Within two weeks, Microsoft will contact you for your address and then send you a check.” The amount quickly rose from $5 to $245 in later versions.
“Microsoft contacted me for my e-mail and within days, I received a check for $24800.00,” one version concluded.
Both Gates and Microsoft responded to the hoax. “The bogus message was widely forwarded, which surely led to some disappointment from people who hoped to receive $1,000 for passing along what was essentially a chain letter,” Gates wrote in 1998. A year later, Microsoft confirmed the obvious, “As you may have suspected, this is a hoax and did not originate from Microsoft.”
The chain emails continued to circulated in dwindling numbers until about 2004, although in recent years a social media variety popped up with Bill Gates holding a (doctored) sign which said he would give $5000 to anyone who shared the photo on Facebook.
Although fake news, doctored images, and lip-syncing have become a seemingly daily part of internet culture in the 2010s, they were at the core of some of the most significant hoaxes of the 1990s.
What 1990s hoaxes would you include on this list?