Fence Painting

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
The Trope Namer in all its glory.
Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?

A character assigned a tedious or unpleasant task cons others into helping him. May be accomplished by means of Reverse Psychology, or a Bavarian Fire Drill, or by making a Chain of Deals, or something else.

Many Fence Painting recruiters depend on convincing victims that their potentially lethal painting is honorable, noble, moral, what God would want them to do, the only true way To Be a Master...

Notable Fence Painting activities include being in a Mad Scientist's experiment, any Deal with the Devil or joining a war against a country you didn't even know existed. Or, you know, painting fences.

Based on the famous whitewashing scene in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom not only tricks the local kids into painting a fence for him, but he convinces some of them to pay him for the honor. This makes it Older Than Radio.

Compare Stone Soup (where everybody who helps out also shares in the benefits), Wax On, Wax Off (where the work itself benefits the person doing it), and Wants the Work Done for Them (where the person can't even be bothered to come up with a con to get others to help).

Examples of Fence Painting include:

Anime and Manga

  • Naruto's genins give their lives for just the chance to be promoted to chunin because they were taught since childhood that being a ninja is the greatest thing ever! Ninja who don't feel like giving their lives for the sake of the Muggle nations are criminals.
    • The same applies to the backstory of many shows that involve Tyke Bombs.
  • In Urusei Yatsura, Lum and Ten are excited about seeing their first typhoon. Ataru convinces them to greet it properly by boarding up all the windows for him.

Comic Books

  • Green Lantern Corps had a sub-plot about Kyle Rayner painting a large mural depicting the history of the Corps on the interior of a building. He spends the first days of work priming, and realizes it would take a very long time to finish. As numerous other Lanterns keep coming to question him about what he's doing - and since many of them are aliens who have never painted before - he gets them to prime the building for him. Guy Gardner even calls him out on using the "Tom Sawyer" trick, even though it was very much a labor of love for everyone involved.
  • Roger the Dodger from The Beano pulls this trope a lot.


  • There's a short story by Italian writer Italo Calvino that plays with the idea in a weird way, where a man continues to shout the name Teresa at a building, and when she doesn't come out, people gather around and help him of their own volition, and eventually form a cohesive group. At the end, someone finally asks, "Are you sure she's home?" The original shouter says, "Who?" "Teresa." "I don't know anyone named Teresa." And everyone wanders off.
  • The main character for The Great Brain books was pretty good at this.
  • As noted in the main text (and the page image), the Trope Namer is the famous whitewashing scene in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Live-Action TV

  • On 3rd Rock from the Sun, when the Big Giant Head assigned another alien to be Dick's wife, Sally managed to convince her that domestic duties were incredibly fun and a huge privilege.
  • In an episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Sookie are pressured by their Butt Monkey friend Michel into helping decorate Lorelai's garage, and end up making him do all of the hard work, including painting, and when Michel notices, Lorelai remarks, "Just like Tom Sawyer..."

Newspaper Comics

Oral Tradition, Folklore, Myths and Legends

  • This is at least Older Than Radio, if not older: It was the primary modus operandi of Anansi The Spider, West African Trickster, for whom conning people into doing his hard work, or out of their hard work to his benefit, was practically an art form both used by him and turned against him by people wise to him game.

Video Games

  • There are two different examples in Kingdom of Loathing: The first involves literally painting a fence with white paint as part of a choice adventure, while the other requires you to paint a red door black in order to prove yourself worthy to ride a giant sandworm (your own character does a Lampshade Hanging on the silliness of it all).
  • Subverted in The Next Big Thing. The task to be done is, in fact, a dangerous and untested Mad Scientist's experiment, so you would think you need to scam someone into testing it...but the Mad Scientist is more responsible than most, so he doesn't want you anywhere near the thing. In fact, he's only accepting volunteers who are aware it's a terrible idea, but are suicidal enough not to care, and who meet the standards he's set for being worthless to society. The scam is you need to convince the scientist that you're worthless to society, so you can test his experiment and abuse it for your own ends.
  • Billy vs. SNAKEMAN has a recurring quest in which for one of your rounds of training under MC Stripeypants, you wash his car. This will take a while; newer players may need more than one real-life day. At the end, it turns out the reason was that he had a hot date and wanted his car clean. Your reward is getting introduced to a cat.

Web Comics

Artie: You want me to teleport to the moon? How expendable do you think I am?
Helen: I'm sorry, Artie. Sometimes I forget how small and helpless you are.
Artie: Wha - Now, see, this is why I've been filing all those complaints to the ACLU! You constantly assume I can't perform equally simply because of my species! Well I'm sick of it! I can rescue Dave and Mell at least as well as a primate!
Helen: (thinks) I need a new hobby.

Western Animation

  • Compare Cartman's use of this psychological fact in South Park. He manages to make a dying theme park thrive by telling people they aren't allowed in. This false scarcity creates booming interest in the park.
    • The difference though is that he doesn't do it intentionally. He originally wanted his own private amusement part but was eventually forced to let people in so he can make money to maintain it. Played straight by other businesses that capitalize on this phenomenon, though.
  • In The Simpsons parody of Tom Sawyer, Bart (as Tom) tries this but Milhouse doesn't fall for it. So Nelson (as Huck) threatens him with physical violence, which works much better.
  • From Futurama, when characters enter books to hunt down a giant brain...

Brain: Tom Sawyer, you tricked me! This task has been less fun than previously indicated. May this corny slice of Americana be your prison for all eternity.

  • Camp Lazlo: In "Bowling for Dinosaurs", Scoutmaster Lumpus tricks the Bean Scouts into clearing the space for his new bowling alley by getting them to dig for dinosaur bones.
  • The Casagrandes episode "I, Breakfast Bot" has Rosa task Ronnie Anne, CJ, Carl, and Sergio with finishing the rest of her chores while she deals with the Flores' toilet. Sid, who was tinkering with Breakfast Bot, offers use of the robot to Ronnie Anne - when the others notice this, they demand the robot complete their chores as well, and eventually run its battery dry in the process. After upgrading Breakfast Bot, Sid and the other kids resume handing it their chores and other menial tasks to do, which causes it to become resentful and start a Robot Uprising.

Real Life

  • One of the most effective ways to get people to agree to join a group is to gather together a large number of people only mildly interested in joining said group and telling them how few people could possibly make the cut. Mass job interviews, Greek Week and volunteering rallies all depend on people seeing their competition, being told "many will enter, few will win" and that wonder human Law Of Scarcity.
    • This can also have the opposite effect. It gives the impression that you probably won't get the job, and may encourage a person to look somewhere that they actually feel they have a chance. Filling out job applications is time consuming, and no one wants to do it if the odds of actually getting the job are low to begin with.
    • A recent[when?] trend among social media users is to post a message promoting a social/political/religious cause, then end the message with "93% of you won't repost this" or some similar vague and unsourced claim of scarcity, with the intent of daring readers to prove they're better than the common rabble.
  • Carnegie Mellon University has a tradition of literal fence painting: a fence on campus has been painted with messages from fraternities and other student groups thousands of times over the last few decades. The groups involved have been very successful getting member participation in doing the painting (the tradition is that each group has to repaint the entire fence) and staying up all night guarding it against other groups that might paint over it. (The original wooden fence, dating to the 1920s, eventually rotted and collapsed under the weight of all the paint, so the fence being painted now is actually a newer replacement.)
    • Northwestern University has a similar tradition, though it is far older and involves a rock. Which has gotten dramatically bigger over the years.
    • The schools in the Central Bucks district in PA do the same. To prevent them from being vandalized the, the high schools have a rock out front and outback. Student groups paint the rock on special occasions in the middle of the night. It has been suggested that a great prank would be to power-wash the rock.