#2. Writer Creates Fake L.L. Bean Catalog, Hundreds Try Ordering His Made-Up Crap
In 1982, Avon Books published a spoof L.L. Bean catalog created by humor writer Alfred Gingold entitled "Items from Our Catalog." It was filled with ridiculous items for "sale," such as edible moccasins and nose warmers. Granted, half of that stuff probably was actually for sale via SkyMall, but clearly the whole thing was intended to be a joke.
We'd like to draw your attention to the dog bra.
One Small Problem
Even though most people caught on that it was a joke, neither Gingold nor any of the folks at Avon thought to clarify that none of the items featured in the catalog even existed, let alone were actually for sale, nor did they think to include a small disclaimer anywhere in the thing saying something to the effect of "Please don't mail us a check or call the phone number on the back of this catalog and try to order any of this shit."
First of all, keep in mind that a shitload of people bought this fake catalog. It sold over 8 million copies at $4.95 each and even spawned a sequel the following year.
Don't even pretend you wouldn't buy that mouse-sized shoeboat.
And yes, Avon was slammed with "several hundred" calls from people trying to order their ridiculous contraptions; so many, in fact, that until the madness died down, they had to bring on additional staff to answer the phones and crush the dreams of some "very upset" potential customers. Others took a more direct approach by mailing checks straight to the office with attachments indicating how many of each item they wanted, in what color, and in what size.
Even stranger is the fact that Avon didn't even include their real phone number in the catalog, meaning that those several hundred calls were generated by people who looked up the number, no easy feat by 1982 standards. People were that desperate to give Avon their money in exchange for this fictional bullshit. The reception was so great at one point that Avon even considered actually producing the items, but chose not to because they didn't think they could keep up with the demand. The demand, that is, for products like battery-operated eyeglass wipers. And now you know how Hammacher Schlemmer can continue to exist.
#1. Johnny Carson Jokes About a Toilet Paper Shortage, Inadvertently Causes One
In December 1973, Wisconsin Congressman Harold Froehlich made headlines by publicly complaining that the United States was falling behind on bids to supply toilet paper. OK, so it wasn't exactly Watergate, but it was a relevant national issue nevertheless. Newsworthy or not, however, the nation's most beloved television personality saw in the story an opportunity to steal a laugh, so Johnny Carson used it, sarcastically, in the following setup for what would normally be just a routine Tonight Show joke:
"You know what's disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper. There's an acute shortage of toilet paper in the United States."
Now, this is a great example of how bullshit spreads. A politician exaggerates a problem for political purposes. A comedian exaggerates the claim even further for comedy purposes. And then people accept it as absolute fact.
"Over 14 billion people were killed by rabid marmots last year, and Republicans are doing nothing!"
One Small Problem
To be fair, even though it should go without saying that a talk show probably isn't the most reliable source to get your breaking news, this was 1973. If a man on television told you that stores were running out of toilet paper in 1973, you listened, just like you listened when they told you that the historic oil crisis that struck only months before this broadcast was so substantial that the government might have to start rationing the shit out, which they indeed ended up doing the very next year. These were lean times, and considering all of the other shit that went on in the 1970s, a shit paper shortage was by no means out of the question.
And this is toilet paper we're talking about here, a necessity so vital that even suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay are allotted 15 sheets per day. How do you think people reacted?
"This isn't Angel Soft -- it's Charmin cut with paper towels! You tryin' to fuck me, man?!"
Many stores were sold out of every crap napkin in stock by noon the next day, as people were buying, according to some reports, "as many rolls as they could carry," and even though Scott Paper issued statements reassuring everyone that this was all just one big misunderstanding and let the media film their factories in full production just to make certain this was clear, it still took three full weeks before shelves were properly restocked.
Carson apologized for the mix-up on air a few nights later, and America never got worked up into a panic over a bullshit rumor ever again.
Follow Russell on Twitter.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 8 Needlessly Insane Moments from Star Trek.