This one originated in the latter half of the 19th century when American consumer culture was running high off its own bullshit. For consumer products, this was the time of cure-alls, magical brassieres, and medicines claiming the power to dispel demons and calm the psychological tremors of insanity while at the same time curing constipation and boils. For entertainment this was the era of side-shows and freak museums, of Barnum’s Tom Thumb and the Feejee Mermaid, of hoaxes and gags all in the name of show business. Basically, it was the simultaneous birth of entertainment as industry and the American belief that happiness, or more importantly the illusion of happiness, can be bottled and bought.
A New York businessman and inventor named Kip Billington owned a successful company that sold face cream and body lotion. He’d been selling these cosmetics for years, in fact he’d already made a small fortune, however, recently the market had become inundated with new brands that touted their pompous advertising with unprecedented vigor and muscularity. It was clear that he needed something fresh, a new scheme, a new form of advertising.
Billington devised a Barnumesque stunt in which, under the pseudonym of a fake public health organization*– False Advertising of Cosmetics Initiative Against Lying (FACIAL) — he would reveal to the press that his skin cream contained large amounts of bat shit, obtained dirt cheap from the underside of a bridge in Texas, and that for 20 years he’d been falsely advertising this product, concealing its main ingredient, and that his valued customers had indeed, for years, been liberally massaging bat poop into their skin pores.
The next day, people would read the news or else hear it from a friend or colleague (bad news always spreads like wildfire), and it would cause an immediate uproar. All of middle-class New York would be outraged. Some would hastily throw away all the Kip Billington products in the house, some would sniff them and vomit, others might simply pass them on to the hired help. However, one thing was for sure, everyone would know that name, Kip Billington, the man who bottled bat shit and sold it as face cream. He’d be the talk of the town, famous. Even better, he’d be infamous.
Then, at the opportune moment, at the height of scandal, when the very presses that printed the bold typefaced letters of his name were burning with scorn, he would reveal the hoax, that he himself had fabricated FACIAL, had slandered himself and damaged his own public image for the express purpose of igniting the crucible of public opinion against the entire skin cream industry, thus purifying it of all lies and falsities of advertising. He did it in the name of Truth and Honesty. (Of course the real truth was that he did it for the hype, which in the end would bring him more business, more money.)
Did his plan work out?
Of course not. But why? Simple: He’d gotten the wrong idea of what a hoax was and did actually put bat poo into his cream.
When the time came to pull back the curtain on the whole operation and reveal the hoax, it didn’t matter. Most regular customers, and even brand new ones, could already see the truth. The Kip Billington Cream bottles had always been of clear glass, and thus it was blatantly obvious that the cream had darkened and its consistency now resembled the charred blackened refuse of grandpa’s hash pipe.
The public deemed Billington an idiot, a monster, and everyone agreed that he should “die in burning hell” for what he did. Everyone except Fawny Tootskin a schizophrenic acne-ridden woman who used the cream religiously and swore by its power (it worked once) to clear unsightly flare-ups caused by menstruation. I bet you can guess what everyone called her.
*Footnote: Such FDA-like organizations did not yet exist. It is interesting, however, to notice that the first occurrences of anything resembling such oversight organizations were created as hype-ploys and hoaxes by the very businesses that such organizations purported to monitor. Tragically, this irony pervades the American economic-political system even today.