Fake news, 1998 style

The following is FAKE NEWS! It is NOT REAL!

If the term fake news had existed in 1998, perhaps we would have worked it into the April Fool’s Day story that appeared in the newspaper’s feature section. That’s right, we intentionally faked an outlandish story and ran it as if it was all true.

Man, was it a different time. Things were flush in the dead-tree publishing business. We felt our oats, so to speak. And the paper had run an April Fool’s joke or two before, so there was precedent. So the features editor, formerly the sports editor, had an idea to perpetrate another harmless, and hopefully humorous, joke on April 1. He asked me to take part, i.e. to write the thing. But write what? I huddled with him and few other features people about a week out.

We decided on the following theme — a symbol was going to replace the name Hampton Roads that everybody hated.

That and other kernals of truth sprinkled among the text — arguing mayors, breathless politicians yearning for a sports franchise — lured in and confused people, just as we intended, even though the story (which is way too long, in hindsight) grew more ridiculous as it went. We knew this by the nastygrams we got in the aftermath, including from the paper’s editor, who evidently was not in on the joke ahead of time.

And yet nobody got fired!

I wrote it as M.R. Gilltaye. Say it fast, without the first period. The advertising firm  was named AFD (April Fool’s Day). And one of our designers came up with not only the yellow arrow (I don’t have a reproduction, sorry), he actually photoshopped a picture of a helicopter carrying the huge, inverted arrow to the unveiling at MacArthur Center. Damn brilliance. You had to read all the way to the final sentence to learn for sure it was a gag, and even then it didn’t really slap you in the face. But there was a disclaimer next to the story that definitively did confirm the fakery. Ha ha ha, you people. Get it? Huh? Huh?

Anyway, I saved the stupid thing, and I post it here — probably against all newspaper copyright rules, but oh well — as an enjoyable blast from the past, even if it is perhaps only enjoyable to me.


April 1, 1988

Symbol To Replace Region’s Name. Goodbye “Hampton Roads”


By M.R. Gilltaye

Perhaps the most critical era of Southeastern Virginia dawns tonight with the unveiling of a new-age symbol to replace “Hampton Roads” as the prevailing identity for this region of 1.6 million people.

Six of the region’s mayors, and the president of the New York advertising firm that conceived the symbol at a cost of $3 million, will gather for a 7 p.m. ceremony at the MacArthur Center construction site in downtown Norfolk.

There, they will officially announce the retirement of Hampton Roads, the controversial and largely ineffective nickname that served the region locally and nationally for more than a decade.

In its place will be put a symbol, — a curved, upward pointing arrow, coincidentally resembling the universal traffic sing for “detour” –  that will represent the region, beginning immediately.

According to one region official who requested anonymity, the symbol “is overwhelmingly positive. It is emblematic of everything that is good and promising about our area and our people, about where we are and where we are going.”

It is also, the official admitted, “Our last, best hope at achieving regional consensus at the turn of the century. We hope this symbol is finally our ticket to the high quality of life, including a major-league sports franchise, that we all want and deserve.”

The symbol, the official said, was conceived with the wildly successful swoosh of the Nike athletic shoe company in mind. Also, The Artist (Formerly Known as Prince), who promotes himself with an untranslatable, but highly recognizable, symbol.

One look at those symbols, the official said, and people instantly know who and what they represent. “In our case the symbol will mean FHR, or Formerly Hampton Roads. We are to be referred to as FHR from this day forward.”

A strategic added bonus is that by resembling the detour sign, “FHR will receive incalculable free advertising around the world, ‘round the clock. Now it is up to our marketing people to make our brand internationally recognizable. When a woman in China sees the arrow, we want her to think, “I need to visit FHR.” The mind soars with possibilities.”

The symbol is the brainstorm of AFD Advertising, Manhattan marketing specialists who were contracted by the (Formerly ) Hampton Roads Partnership with public funds last year.

“I applaud the leaders of FHR for their incredible foresight and courage in taking this unprecedented step in municipal government,“ said Adam P. Feinbaum, AFD’s president.

“With this symbol as their trumpet, they will succeed in not only putting FHR on the map, but also in announcing that FHR is a bold and progressive location for businesses and families that only needs major sports to make it truly world class.

“Other up and coming cities have approached us about trading their names for symbols, but to my knowledge, FHR is the first to follow through”

In this case, necessity truly was the other of invention. In the spirit of regionalism, the mayors had met secretly for months, according to the official, trying to agree on a replacement for Hampton Roads.

All conceded that the nickname had failed miserably and, in fact, had created more confusion than clarification as to who what and where Hampton Roads was.

Apparently the deciding factor in changing the region’s name was a Gallup Poll of 3,689 households in the East and Midwest commissioned by the (Former) Hampton Roads Partnership. Asked to identify “Hampton Roads” on a map, a shocking 52% of adults pointed to various parts of the interstate highway system in 18 different states.

Seventeen percent actually said it was “somewhere in Virginia.” But 12 percent thought it was “a NASCAR track,” 9 percent pointed to waters off the island of Bermuda, and 8 percent answered “do not know/do not care.”

“That certainly was a swift kick in the pants, I must say,” the official said. “We knew it was bad. We just didn’t know how bad.”

The trouble was only starting, however. Repeated attempts by the mayors and their marketing arm to find a new, common name to tout the region’s charms proved prohibitive.

The provincial animosity that has scuttled a laundry list of would-be regional projects in the past flared mightily again, the official said, particularly between Norfolk’s Paul Fraim and Virginia Beach’s Meyera Oberndorf.

“At one point, when Meyera wasn’t looking, Paul actually winged her with a spitball and then pointed at (Portsmouth’s) Jim Holley,” the official said with a sigh. “Believe me, some of those meetings were not pretty.”

Ironically, words proved to be the effort’s undoing. The right ones for a new catch-name could not be found, or at least settled upon. (Among the suggestions that drew support were South Richmond, Just Folks, Thumbs Up!, Way North Carolina and, strangely, Palookaville.)

Finally, at hopeless loggerheads, the mayors turned to AFD, which has created and launched successful ad campaigns for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Preparation H suppositories and Jaclyn Smith Kmart sportswear.

“We noshed with HR leaders, rattled around in their heads, spent the day off the coast watching porpoises. I mean dolphins. Whatever,” Finebaum said. “What I got was, please help us. We got Nordstrom’s, but we need more. We want sports. We want fame. We want it all. Make us real. Make us hot.”

Symbol, Feinbaum thought. Not words.

“Words are passé. Words are dead,” Finebaum said. “Visuals. Graphics. Something to see, to touch, something to suck into your brain and let grow. It’s a very aggressive process, and so we produced a very aggressive symbol. Such synergy. It really is breathtaking.”

A surprisingly simple symbol, the up-arrow starts straight, bends to the right and precedes upward. Feinbaum said it perfectly captures the positive spirit and FHR can-do attitude.

“In my discussions, I was impressed when one official told me the skies here are never partly cloudy, but mostly sunny,” Feinbaum said. “Another said it wasn’t a hurricane destroying Sandbridge but a brief and welcome sprinkle. Hey give me that attitude, I’ll make money for you all day.”

Feinbaum said the arrow denotes progression and reward, an indirect path to an unlimited future. “It reaches people on a pre-language level,” Feinbaum said. “It is engagingly postmodern, but in a primitive yet sophisticated sense. It’s asking questions, not providing answers. Instead of ‘Why?’ it’s saying ‘Why not?’ ’’

The arrow’s move to the right, Feinbaum said, is most important and of great intrinsic value.

“We read left-to-right, do we not?” Feinbaum said. “Going right, the eyes are active, they’re alive, bing, bing, bing. Plus, from a sheet of other symbols we have in development, 70% of our focus group remembered the FHR symbol the next day. This is significant. This is good.”

Each area city will continue to operate as a separate, nameless entity, the regional official said, but it will share the symbol, if not water. The next logical step is the removal of Hampton Roads from all highway signage, maps, monuments and brochures, replacing those words with the symbol.

In addition, letters must be written under a symbolic letterhead to the commissioner of each major league sports league so there is no confusion when they award their next expansion franchises.

“This is the start of something monumental,” the official said. “The only problem is, we really picked a lousy day for the announcement. No one’s going to believe it.”