PR Strategy: How Taco Bell Turned Prank into Profit (Part 1 of 2)

Taco Bell buys the Liberty BellOn April 1, 1996 a full page advertisement appeared in six major American newspapers[1] announcing that Taco Bell had purchased the Liberty Bell, one of the United States’ most cherished historical symbols. The “justification” for this controversial announcement was that Taco Bell was seeking a way to do its part in helping to reduce the US national debt.  The ad went on to explain that while the bell would be renamed the “Taco Liberty Bell”, it would still remain accessible to the public.

An accompanying press release trumpeted Taco Bell’s corporate good-citizenship by comparing the bell’s purchase to the adoption of highways by corporations. Taco Bell suggested that it was only “going one step further by purchasing one of the country’s greatest historic treasures.” In conclusion, the company proudly stated, “Taco Bell’s heritage and imagery have revolved around the symbolism of the bell. Now we’ve got the crown jewel of bells.”

We know now that this was all part of a carefully planned April Fools’ Day corporate prank, deservedly ranked as one of the best of its kind.  At the time however, while some people got the joke, others took it seriously and yet others took offense.  One example of media coverage from the latter camp is an op-ed piece in the Washington Times of April 5, 1996 in which the writer describes the hoax in heated terms: “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.”

How They Managed

Articles like this were by no means rare, so effectively managing the PR aspect of the campaign to minimize the risk of brand damage took skill and no small amount of nerve, but Taco Bell was undoubtedly helped by the nature of media coverage in 1996.  Although CNN was launched in 1980, the World Wide Web was in its early stages so the news cycle was still driven by print media and mainstream TV/radio and, as such, was less diverse and slower moving than today.

At lunchtime on April 1, Taco Bell issued a second press release in which they confessed to the hoax, describing it as “The Best Joke of the Day.” The company also announced that it would donate $50,000 for the upkeep of the Liberty Bell.  This ensured that Taco Bell maintained control of the story and, although it did not prevent articles like the one cited above, they were very much in the minority and the campaign was an unqualified success.

The Impact

In a subsequent report, Taco Bell’s PR company, Paine & Associates, quantified the benefits of the campaign for Taco Bell:

“More than 650 print outlets and 400 broadcast outlets covered the Taco Liberty Bell story, featuring mentions of the “Nothing Ordinary About It” ad campaign. More than 70 million Americans were exposed to the media event, through radio, print and television coverage, including NBC “Nightly News,” “The Today Show,” CBS “This Morning,” CNN and USA Today. Additionally, more than 50 newspapers nationwide utilized a whimsical AP photo of the Taco Bell CEO next to a replica of the Liberty Bell. Free publicity surrounding the Taco Liberty Bell story generated the equivalent of $25 million in advertising for Taco Bell.”

Finally, according to Taco Bell’s marketing department, their sales spiked upwards by over $500,000 during the week of April 1, compared to the week before, an extraordinary ~85x return for a campaign that cost about $300,000.

Our next post will discuss how we can apply the lessons learned from this story to similar PR challenges today.

[1] The Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and USA Today

Eric Koefoot

Eric Koefoot

President & CEO
Find me on LinkedIn