Research 21/021
Billboard Intervention: A Modern Prank With Antique Roots

Pranks have been part of human culture for a long time, with examples such as “April Fool’s Day” — the annual custom that takes place on April 1 — has its roots as far back as the Middle Ages.In “The Canterbury Tales” — a collection of 24 stories from 1392 by Geoffrey Chaucer — there are references to this day. In France, the tradition enters the discussion around the 1500s.

If this is the origin of “April Fool”s Day,” the concept of a “joke” has an even older history.Just think, archaeologists speak of the Roman emperor Elagabalus as a great prankster, who routinely seated “his more pompous dinner guests on 'whoopee cushions' that let out a farting noise.” He also liked to release snakes in public or place a bear, lion, or leopard in his guests’ rooms.

More recently, such pranks and jokes have slowly disappeared, replaced by acts more related to shoddy vandalism than the complicated escapades of Elagabalus. Spurred forward by social media apps such as Vine, and more recently, TikTok, pranks have evolved away from “getting a laugh” into “getting a like”.

If however there is a style of prank that has become considerably more mainstream in the last century, it is that of “Billboard Intervention”, an easy way to get your joke in front of a large number of people.

This style of prank became famous worldwide thanks to a 21-year old art student from California called Danny Finegood, who decided to take on one of the world’s most famous symbols: the Hollywood sign.It was 1976, and Finegood's class had a project that involved working with scale, and, since he was fascinated with the Hollywood sign since a young age, he decided to work on that.

Together with three friends, he ventured out on the night of January 1, 1976, the same day state law decriminalized marijuana. Using bedsheets to turn the “Os” into “Es”, the trio turned the sign from “Hollywood”, to “Hollyweed.” In what would be considered a sub-par prank nowadays had far reaching effects back then, with photos of Finegood’s creation circulating the planet. Many consider this one of the first examples of a viral prank.

With the trend of sign intervention growing increasingly popular over the last decade, turning into a symbol of early-internet culture, everything from small to large signs have been used as canvases. A simple search on Reddit will nowadays reveal hundreds of hilarious results, allowing everyone to explore the world’s humor in seconds.