People love pranks. Well, people mostly love playing pranks – not everyone appreciates being on the receiving end of one. Generally, the extent of a prank is limited by one's sense of humor, appropriateness of the prank and one's resources. But what would you do if you had unlimited resources at your disposal? Well, nearly unlimited. Imagine you have a multi-billion-dollar corporation at your disposal. And not just some corporation. Imagine you're Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group.
Mister Branson is quite an eccentric individual with an unusual outlook on life, which probably contributed to his immense success. It has surely contributed to his April Fool's pranks, with the UFO hoax being probably his most famous – or infamous ones. For this endeavor, he had commissioned a massive saucer-shaped hot air balloon with an added feature of strobe lights from the company called Cameron Balloons Limited located in Bristol, a 2 hours car ride from London. Branson had initially planned for the UFO to touch down in Hyde Park April 1st 1989. Unfortunately for the prankster, wind conditions forced the UFO, operated by a small-framed pilot in a costume, to land a day earlier – and not quite in downtown London. Still, the prank left quite an impression. Richard Branson himself later wrote in his official blog:
We took off at about 4am, flying over London with strobe lights blinking every 10 seconds. By the time wed reached the motorway it was beginning to get light. We could see every single vehicle grinding to a halt and hundreds of people looking up at the UFO flying over them. It was great fun watching their reactions.
In reality, the prank went better than Branson anticipated. Perhaps the reason for this was that people were more gullible at the time; perhaps it was the uncommon nature of saucers flying above London area. In any case, drivers not just stopped their cars on the roads – they rushed to emergency phones and called the authorities. Turns out that the police had received a flood of phonecalls as the balloon passed over the highway. Some witnesses even called local radio stations – but, thankfully, the ordeal did not escalate to full-blown panic. The pilot, though, in costume mimicking the famous E.T. Movie alien, did cause a scene. Richard Branson recalls the events unfurling following the landing:
The police surrounded us and then sent one lone policeman with his truncheon across the field to greet the alien. The UFOs door opened very slowly, with tonnes of dry ice billowing from it. A dwarf that we had carried on board, dressed in an ET outfit, walked down the platform towards the bobby. He promptly turned and ran in the opposite direction! The police initially didnt see the funny side of it and threatened to arrest us for wasting their time. But they soon joined in the general merriment of it.
Although this was probably the most infamous pranks orchestrated by Richard Branson, he has a history of using his company resources to celebrate April Fools to the maximum extent. For example, in 1996 Virgin Cola announced that the company had launched a campaign claiming its soda cans were outfitted with a new technology. Supposedly, when the cola went flat, it would react with the can, turning the metal a bright blue color. Thus consumers should not purchase blue soda cans, the ads argued. Coincidentally, at the time, Pepsi, one of Virgin's rivals in the soft drink market, had recently unveiled its new aluminum cans – which were bright blue in color.