July 31, 2009 -- This week marks the 10 year anniversary of "The Blair Witch Project," the low-budget thriller that won multiple awards and grossed more than $248 million worldwide.
But before "Blair Witch" became an internationally-known film, it was an internet sensation that doubled as a brilliant marketing strategy. Blairwitch.com debuted in 1999, fooling many people into believing that three students had vanished in the Black Hills Forest while filming a documentary about "an old woman ghost."
The Web site included just enough detail to make it appear real: interviews with "experts," a legitimate location (Burkitsville, Md.), photographic "evidence" and history about the so-called local legend.
As everyone now knows, the "Blair Witch" documentary wasn't any more real than the Blair witch herself.
"The project inspired a slew of marketing-driven hoax Web sites," said Alex Boese, a self-proclaimed "hoaxpert" who has spent decades studying modern society's fakery. One of the most well-known examples was nationalblondeday.com launched by the Reese Witherspoon movie "Legally Blonde."
But these days, Boese said, "I'm getting the sense that the fad for hoax websites has died down a little since the first decade of the Internet."
Hoax Sites: Too Much Work?
As the "curator" of the Museum of Hoaxes, Boese said he's fooled many people, including some media outlets, into assuming he oversees a brick and mortar museum.
Just check out this page to see why: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/aboutmuseum.html
"It's the only hoax I've created myself," he said.
He may not be curator of an actual museum, but Boese's Web site is a very real source of information. He has authored two books about hoaxes, and another about bizarre science experiments. And he thoroughly researches every hoax Web site that surfaces on the Internet.
Fewer Elaborate Hoaxes on the Internet
Lately, he said, "I'm not seeing as many of the elaborate jokes."
Now that we're fully entrenched in Web 2.0, the public is savvy, and social networking reigns. When it comes to online marketing, or even a good old fashioned prank, why build an entire Web site? It's much easier to use Facebook or YouTube.
In the wake of Michael Jackson's death, for example, celebrity death hoaxes surfaced when pranksters hacked into twitter accounts, or in some cases, used an online program to produce a Web page that appears to be from a news organization.
And with the rise of YouTube, marketers have a free promotion vehicle.
"Now companies are getting the sense they get more bang for their buck so they create viral video instead [of elaborate Web sites]," Boese said.
So in the spirit of the "Blair Witch" anniversary, let's take a look back at some of the most well-known hoax Web sites.
Boilerplate: The Victorian Era Robot
There's an old(ish) saying that "If it's on the Internet, it must be true," an indicator that perhaps, even just one decade ago, people were more easily fooled.
"Web sites had more credibility at that time," Boese said. "So back in 1999 you could put up a Web site and more people would believe."
Even Boese nearly fell for this one: http://www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate/
That is, until Boese checked out the library references cited on the site and found they were all fake.
"It's the silliest thing in hindsight, but it's about this Victorian era robot. A guy developed this whole history of this robot that was constructed in the 19th century. It was really elaborate and well done. I was thinking well, maybe someone built a robot … I don't know how they got it to work …"
According to the boilerplate Web site, the robot "was originally designed as a prototype soldier for use in resolving the conflicts of nations. Although it was the only such prototype, Boilerplate was eventually able to exercise its proposed function by participating in several combat actions. In the mid-1890s, Boilerplate embarked on a series of expeditions to demonstrate its abilities, the most ambitious being a voyage to Antarctica. Boilerplate is one of history's great ironies, a technological milestone that remains largely unknown."
Boese declared the Web site "A true work of art," when writing about it on MuseumofHoaxes.com. "I would love it if Boilerplate really had existed."
Bonsai Kitten: One of the Web's Most Notorious Hoaxes
Animal lovers were furious when MIT students created BonsaiKitten.com as a prank in 2000. The site gave step-by-step instructions on how to shape newborn cats into various "sculptures."
"The flexibility of the kitten's skeleton means that if the bones are gently warped at this early age, they can be molded into any desired shape," the Web site proclaimed.
The site was clearly a joke, but public outrage eventually led to the FBI's involvement in 2001. The FBI did not, however, find evidence of animal abuse or the sale of "Bonsai Kittens."
The site is now archived at www.shorty.com where you can still find disturbing pictures of cats that appear to have been forced into small glass containers, and you can still read the furious comments left on the site's "guestbook" from visitors who are alternately delighted and appalled at the idea of cramming a kitten into a small container.
"How DARE you do such a thing to an animal!" one commenter supposedly wrote in 2000. "You are going to PAY for what you have done to these animals!! You will be hearing from us and the Animal Legal Defense Fund Lawyers!"
In what was probably one of the most disgusting Internet pranks, ManBeef.com appeared in 2001 offering to sell human flesh.
From the original site: "We have everything from Sausages and Soup Bones to Bouillon, and Stock. All made with the highest quality human meats. Every cut of human meat we sell has been selected for its superb quality and flawless texture. We only offer the choicest cuts of meat."
According to Boese, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation to make sure human meat wasn't actually being sold.
The rumor-busting site snopes.com claims to have contacted the USDA about the possibility of purchasing "people chops" from manbeef.com.
Snopes posted this response, reportedly from the USDA: "It is definitely a hoax and you are right, it is illegal to sell human meat, by absence of legality. In other words, meat and poultry to be sold must be examined by a federal authority."
It turned out that the real profit-making scheme involved "ManBeef" T-shirts and coffee mugs.
You won't find the original site anywhere online. But you can see the cached version here, courtesy of the Internet Archive: http://web.archive.org/web/20010331024530/www.manbeef.com/faq.html
DowEthics.com and the Yes Men
The Web site DowEthics.com looks pretty convincing at first, but it has no affiliation with Dow Chemical's real Web site, Dow.com.
Even so, it fooled the BBC in 2004 when an unknowing researcher used the Web site to book an interview with a Dow Chemical executive.
While on-air the "executive" said Dow would finally clean up the toxic chemical plant in Bhopal, India and pay billions in compensation to the victims on the 20-year anniversary of the disaster. Dow Chemical's stock dropped sharply.
In reality, Dow Chemical does not claim responsibility for the lethal gas that killed at least 8,000 people and poisoned about half a million.
The Dow stunt was pulled off by the Yes Men, a loosely knit group of Internet pranksters who spoof prominent corporations and organizations.
Two members of the Yes Men, Jacques Servin and his partner, Igor Vamos, have continued to take on big business with even bigger pranks: this week their hijinks were broadcast in an award-winning HBO documentary: "The Yes Men Fix the World."
Sometimes art imitates life very well, which makes getting fooled all the more unsettling.
"I guess I've always been interested in how people know what's real and what isn't real," Boese said. At the heart of it all, he added, there's an "underlying insecurity of what's real."