Reality Hoaxes, Photo Doctoring, and Death Rumors: ’09’s Buzziest Stunts

A congressional hearing is no glitzy White House party.

The now notorious Salahis, who exposed Secret Service gaps when they crashed a state dinner—declined their exclusive invite to a Dec. 3 Congressional hearing investigating the incident. Some hosts just won’t take “no” for answer: A special pass—called a subpoena—has been sent out, and a “thanks but no thanks” response will earn the fame-stalkers Contempt of Congress charges.

As blithely as the Salahis have treated the lark (up until now, at least), the stunt might be the most serious yet in a year full of outrageous capers, doctored photos, and even death hoaxes. Not to say that the others didn’t stoke their share of controversy and outrage. Marvel at the audacity of what some did to get attention in 2009…and how a few “victims” managed to capitalize upon it.

Balloon Boy wasn’t the first airborne stunt: That honor goes to professional prankster Sacha Baron Cohen. He pulled a fast one on many folks in “Borat,” so how to top the 2006 buzz? To promote “Bruno,” Cohen sported a flamboyant persona—and some wings—and dropped, derriere first, onto Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards. Said rapper feigned outrage so convincing, he unleashed buzz for weeks before and after the truth was revealed.

As for Falcon Heene‘s entry into sudden fame, his parents’ bright idea for a reality-TV audition fooled cable news, tweeters, and even military aircraft. Dad Richard Heene, who unleashed the balloon into the air, pled guilty to a felony charge. He’ll find out on Dec. 23 if he has to “stow away” for a while. Like son, like father.

Is There a Photo Doctor in the House?
Whether moving pyramids or making politicians look devilish, the urge to doctor photos has proven irresistible. That temptation is especially strong in the fashion and advertising worlds. Someone decided that Ralph Lauren Polo model Filippa Hamilton—a size 4 who measures 33″-24″-35″—looked better as a stick figure. The clothier apologized, but then months later fired her for—Hamilton claimed—not being able to fit “the sample clothes.” The photo faux pas prompted a French legislature to propose a law that altered photos must be labeled “retouched.”

The Hamilton news stirred controversy over female body image, but that trickery was even less ambitious than the mad-scientist acts of Microsoft’s Polish office: In a generic stock photo of three happy people at a meeting, the head of a white man was transplanted onto the body of a black man—but the hands remained black. Microsoft apologized. Not addressed: the trick of getting people at meetings to look so happy.

Resurrection, the New Career Move
Whether by ill design or sheer error, rumors of celebrities dying before their time happen on the Web. September reports of Matt Damon‘s death during a camping trip (falsely attributed to blog TMZ) conveniently happened during his publicity tour for “The Informant!”. Talk-show host David Letterman confirmed his mortal status.

Jeff Goldblum didn’t have as much luck convincing Stephen Colbert. The actor’s alleged demise circulated online after the real passings of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, thanks to a spoof site that churns up fake celebrity death stories (kind of like the Chuck Norris joke generator). Goldblum appeared on “Colbert Nation” to verify his mortal state, but ended up giving a first-person eulogy and slipping in a TV show plug. In 2009, being among the (living) dead turned out to be a pretty good career move.