When Taco Bell 'Bought' the Liberty Bell

Not since the McPizza has a fast-food stunt caused so much controversy.
Not since the McPizza has a fast-food stunt caused so much controversy. / Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (Taco Bell) // rabbit75_ist/iStock via Getty Images (Liberty Bell)

On the morning of April 1, 1996, the National Park Service began getting a series of phone calls from disgruntled citizens. So did The Philadelphia Inquirer, and radio stations, and the California headquarters of Taco Bell. Thousands of people wanted to register their displeasure with the day's news.

Everyone phoning in had read or heard of some copy appearing beneath an image of the Liberty Bell in several major newspapers. It read:

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.

The advertisement offered no other details. For Taco Bell, it was simply a proclamation that the Mexican-style fast-food chain had appropriated one of the most famous symbols of freedom and independence in the United States, an Idiocracy-level offense before the film Idiocracy was even released in 2006.

It was, of course, a joke, one that would be right at home in the Weekly World News and obvious to most who remembered the April 1 date. But for others, it was taken at face value and wound up being quite possibly the most peculiar advertising stunt in recent memory—one worthy enough to warrant mention by the White House.

A Crunchy Conspiracy

A Taco Bell sign is pictured
Taco Bell hatched a plot to get some spicy publicity. / Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Bell hoax was the work of PainePR, a public relations firm working for Taco Bell. Firm owner David Paine brainstormed with Taco Bell marketing executive Jonathan Blum to come up with an irreverent way of getting the word out about the brand, which opened its first location in 1962 and had since become one of the major fast-food players in the industry. The chain's last big promotional effort, sponsorship of The Dana Carvey Show, was ill-fated: The variety series was about to be canceled after poor ratings and controversy over Carvey appearing as a lactating Bill Clinton.

For weeks, nothing executives brought up seemed to resonate. Then someone mentioned the fact that April Fools’ Day was coming up; someone else began free-associating with the word bell. Why not a Taco Liberty Bell?

This came at a time when corporations were coming up with unique branding opportunities like stadium sponsorships. If brands could name a sports arena, it seemed plausible that Taco Bell could buy a piece of American history.

To legitimize the joke, Taco Bell and its advertising firm, Bozell, distributed the “announcement” to major papers like The New York Times, the Inquirer, USA Today, and several others. According to the Inquirer, the spoof was easily missed by papers because it came in just a couple of days before April 1 and because Bozell was a reputable ad agency. That a taco company seemed to be claiming it now owned the Liberty Bell didn’t seem to faze anyone.

A press release added that Taco Bell would graciously be sharing the Liberty Bell with its current home of Philadelphia while keeping it part-time at the company’s headquarters in Irvine, California.

The move was a wild success, presuming “success” meant enraging a good portion of the U.S. population. People taking the ad at its word made calls to Taco Bell, where one operator estimated that 75 percent of the people were irate. They also phoned the National Park Service (NPS), which cared for the Liberty Bell, as well as any media outlet they could find. Even aides for senators Bill Bradley and James Exton reached out to the NPS, looking to confirm if it was true.

“We were shocked,” NPS spokesperson Elaine Sevy said on what was likely one of the most eventful days on the job. “We had no idea this was happening. We have just been getting hammered with phone calls from the public.”

Some compared the stunt to 1938’s War of the Worlds broadcast, in which it’s widely believed Orson Welles convinced some radio listeners that Earth was being invaded by aliens. (While that may be true, it did not appear to incite any mass panic.) In a pre-social media and early-internet culture, it wasn’t easy to find ways to debunk the claim. Several took it at face value and expressed shock the government would even entertain such an idea.

Paine later said it worked exactly as intended. “It hit at just the right moment of time in our country’s history,” he told the Inquirer in 2021. “Companies were beginning to sponsor things ... At the time, it was just becoming controversial. And so the idea that [Taco Bell] could, in effect, purchase or sponsor the Liberty Bell seemed like a really fun, creative, and goofy idea that would appeal to their young audience. Be a little antiestablishment, which is exactly what we were going for in terms of the Taco Bell brand.”

Taking Liberties

There was a limit to Taco Bell’s satirical promotion. By noon on April 1, the company issued another press release to make it clear they were only joking. The NPS issued its own denial, assuring citizens that the Liberty Bell was not under corporate control. Even White House spokesperson Mike McCurry made a joke about it, saying in jest that carmaker Lincoln was going to sponsor the “Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”

But denials and jokes appeared to do little to satiate those who felt the Liberty Bell was too sacred to use as fodder for fast-food marketing. Was it really funny to co-opt the Bell just to advertise Chalupas?

Speaking to the Inquirer, Philadelphia resident George Veal was unmoved. "I think it's in poor taste," he said. "Even if it's a joke, I don't think that they should take that symbol and use it in an advertisement. I don't think it's right ... It just goes to show you nothing is sacred anymore ... the Liberty Bell belongs to the country ... it belongs to the people."

One reader of The Washington Post, Lucille Knowles, told the paper that “What bothers me is that it's almost believable … commercialization seems to be overtaking everything."

It wasn’t the first time the Bell had been used in a hoax: During an 1885 railway journey to New Orleans for the Cotton States Centennial, publicists for the event concocted a story in which the Bell was said to have been overtaken by an unruly mob and tossed over a levee.

Taco Bell, which saw a modest week-over-week increase in sales as a result of the stunt, believed that spending roughly $300,000 in ad expenses created $25 million in publicity. They moved on to a personable chihuahua (“Yo quiero Taco Bell”) for a somewhat successful ad campaign the following year. In 2001, the company put up a floating bullseye in the South Pacific in the hopes of catching some debris from Russia’s Mir space station.

Paine has since speculated that Taco Bell could never repeat a stunt like it today. A division of PepsiCo, a publicly traded company, issuing a fraudulent press release could be a stock market and legal debacle. But it should be said that the fast-food giant didn’t exploit the Liberty Bell without giving something back: Following the ruse, Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell asked the company to chip in for the Bell’s new pavilion. Taco Bell responded by donating $50,000 towards preservation efforts.