Four Great Pop Culture Hoaxes

The audacity of hoax

With the season of the grifter and accusations that Jussie Smollett may have staged a hate crime against himself fresh on our minds, it's clear we can't get enough of a good hoax (alleged or otherwise). To sate our appetites, here are four of pop culture's best grifters, cheaters, liars, and hoaxes.

Justin Bieber and the Sideways Burrito

When everyone, even the leader of the free world, uses Twitter to launch typo-laden vitriol, it's almost a relief when the entire internet can forge ahead, together, and take a stand against injustice. On October 25, 2018, injustice was thrust upon the digital sphere in photographic form: an image of Justin Bieber, alone on a park bench, tearing into a burrito, middle-first. The photo was picked up by multiple outlets, all dumbstruck by the epicurean quirk of the Canadian pop star. Alas, the photo turned out to be a fake—nothing more than a lookalike staged by the YouTube channel YesTheory who came clean in a video that is, for some reason, 12 minutes long.

We Fooled the Internet w/ Fake Justin Bieber Burrito Photo www.youtube.com

USA Today

Balloon Boy

This hoax has it all. Regular couple desperate for attention? Check. Exploitation of a small child in hopes of a reality TV deal? Check. A rogue 20-foot, saucer-shaped helium balloon? Check. County-wide search and rescue effort that included a Black Hawk helicopter? Check. A six-year-old boy accidentally blowing his parents' cover on live TV? Check. That same boy vomiting not once, but twice, also on live TV? But, of course.

On the afternoon of October 15, 2009, people across the country watched as a homemade flying saucer drifted over the greater Denver area. At approximately 11:00 that morning, self-proclaimed UFO enthusiast Richard Heene had accidentally launched the transportation device prototype from his Fort Collins backyard without realizing, he claimed, that his six-year-old son, Falcon (ok, maybe his kid's name should have been the first red flag), had climbed aboard. National television outlets covered the flight live, and viewers watched for hours as the balloon made its way to an empty field near Denver International Airport at 2:00pm—with no trace of Falcon. At 4:00pm, as Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden announced to news media that a recovery effort was underway, one of his deputies informed him that the boy had been found. Falcon claimed he had been playing in the family's garage all day.

During a live interview on CNN that evening, Wolf Blitzer asked Falcon why he hadn't left the garage as people called his name. When he didn't immediately reply, his father stepped in, repeating the question, to which a confused-looking Falcon responded, looking at Heele, "You guys said that we did it for a show." After another 24 hours of non-stop media interviews and continuous denials, scrutiny over the veracity of family's story grew. Days later, Sheriff Alderdan confirmed the hoax theory, and Heele and his wife later confessed to orchestrating the entire story.

"Another Winner!" - Dave ManningNetflix

David Manning's Film Reviews

You may not remember Rob Schneider's cinematic triumph, The Animal (consider yourself lucky), but David Manning of Connecticut's The Ridgefield Press deemed it "Another Winner!" From 2000-2001, Manning was Columbia Pictures' biggest fan: his raves appeared on posters and ads for their films A Knight's Tale, Hollow Man, and The Forsaken. The problem? No one named David Manning worked at The Ridgefield Press, and the reviews from which his quotes were clipped didn't exist.

While reporter John Horn was investigating the world of movie junket journalism, he noticed that none of the reporters regularly on the circuit knew Manning. Horn decided to contact The Ridgefield Press. No one at the small weekly had ever heard of Manning, let alone published anything under his byline. In a June 2001 story for Newsweek, Horn revealed that Manning was the creation of a marketing executive at Sony, Columbia Pictures' parent company, who had fabricated the quotes.

Sony pulled the ads, but insisted that their right to publish them was protected by the First Amendment. Yet when moviegoers filed a lawsuit against the studio, a Los Angeles judge rejected the free speech defense. Sony was ordered to pay a $1.5 million settlement—and agreed to a $5 refund for any dissatisfied customers who saw certain films hyped by Manning—and the executive's identity was never made public.

MTV's Springer Break 1998

Because it took place during the infancy of the internet, this one requires some backstory. Back in the late '80s and early aughts, MTV relocated from its NYC headquarters to any place with a beach for an entire week. From there, the network would dedicate a week's worth of programming to 8-hour/day live broadcasts of drunk and horny college-age kids dancing, partying, and generally making asses out of themselves on national television. It was called MTV's Spring Break and it was a beautiful, hot mess.

In addition to musical performances, and, uh, fashion shows, Springer Break, a collegiate version of The Jerry Springer Show, was a staple. Springer Break was markedly more dramatic than its host's regular "tasteless talk show." There was something almost painfully salacious about these younger participants, seemingly plucked from an audience of average campus kids, sitting in shorts and spaghetti-straps with the ocean at their backs and the angry sea air whipping at their faces as they confessed "roommate secrets."

Things got very heated during one such segment of "Roommate Confessions," when roommates Matt and Dave got into a fistfight after Matt revealed that he had been sleeping with Dave's girlfriend, Caitlin, who was conveniently seated between the two right there on the Springer Break stage. Tensions were so high that producers insisted the two men leave the set separately.

Yet just as swiftly as their fists flew, Matt, Dave, and Caitlin—three friends from Georgetown University—quickly confessed that it was nothing but a ruse to "get on TV, have fun, whatever." This may seem inconsequential in a post-Catfish, deepfake, "alternate facts" world, but at the time, it was a huge deal. That three, ordinary kids from Long Island, NY could bamboozle one of the biggest names in daytime TV was as audacious as it was inspiring.

Rebecca Linde is a writer and cultural critic in NYC. She tweets about pop culture and television @rklinde.

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