Tribune Gag Stands Out on a Day of Pranks

Sam Zell's Tribune made light of its situation with a fake Zell quote and an online tip jar.
Sam Zell's Tribune made light of its situation with a fake Zell quote and an online tip jar. (Charles Rex Arbogast - AP)
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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Despite yesterday's rally by the financial markets, 2008 has so far seemed a year of relentlessly bad financial news.

Which might be why several companies tried to lighten the mood a bit yesterday on April Fool's Day.

Wireless giant Qualcomm ginned up an elaborate joke, inventing a product called the HandSolo -- a "device-free" wireless phone whose name nods to "Star Wars." Customers get a chip implanted in their pinky finger that turns their hand into a cellphone and MP3 player, all explained in a video on the company's Web site.

Google's YouTube pranked its home page. When clicked on, each video on the page sent users to a music video of '80s pop singer Rick Astley. The joke is a called a "Rick roll," a classic in Ye Olde Internet Joke Booke.

Google itself expanded on a past April Fool's joke by announcing a plan to colonize Mars. It is a joke, right?

Canada's WestJet Airlines announced that it would offer its overhead luggage bins to passengers as "sleeper cabins" for a modest fee.

In Moscow, Unified Energy System, a holding company for Russia's power producers, ended up with borscht on its face after it joked that it would build Africa's first geothermal plant and had to apologize after -- stunningly -- nobody got the joke.

But the wackiest of yesterday's gags may have come from Sam Zell and his cut-up Tribune Co., which made fun of the company's ailing condition in an attempt to show that it doesn't take itself too seriously. (Though its nervous employees surely do.) In a news release yesterday morning, Tribune announced that it was changing its name to ZellCoMediaEnterprises, selling the naming rights to its venerated Tribune Tower headquarters in Chicago and holding a noon ceremony to mark the event.

"H---, I put $315 million into this thing, and we're on the hook for $13 billion -- the least I ought to get is my name on the company's stationery," the Tribune chairman and chief executive said in the self-censored release. The gag extended to a bogus ZellCoMediaEnterprises Web site, linked to the URL. The page included a running "debt-o-meter" and a "TipJar" button, labeled: "Hey buddy, help a paper out?"

The fake Web page was adorned by pictures of dogs, a reference to a dust-up Zell had with an employee of the Orlando Sentinel. The employee was worried that Zell wanted to dumb down Tribune papers, giving people only what they want, namely, "pictures of puppies." Zell responded that if they did their jobs right, the readers would get "puppies and Iraq," perhaps coining a newspaper motto in the process.

The gag -- conceived by Tribune communications executives Dean Wall and Gary Weitman -- was convincing enough, Tribune said, that WLS-TV, the Chicago ABC affiliate, called Tribune to ask if it could cover the naming-rights ceremony.

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