"He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain."A character (call him Bob) cons others into helping him with a tedious, thankless, or otherwise unpleasant task. Usually (though not always) Bob was meant to do the chore himself and runs this con to drop the work onto another's shoulders. The victim may or may not realize that he's been had. How Bob pulls off this impressive social feat varies. Reverse Psychology is popular, as is pulling a Bavarian Fire Drill, or making a Chain of Deals (but anyone with enough guile to do this usually has many tricks up his sleeve). If the "fence" is a dangerous or potentially lethal thing to "paint," Bob might appeal to the victim's sense of honor, pride, nobility, or religion while simultaneously downplaying the risks involved. 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 doing his chore for him, he convinces most of them to pay him for the opportunity. This makes it Older Than Radio. Compare Stone Soup and Wax On, Wax Off. See Mundane Made Awesome for when the writer pulls this trick on his audience.
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Anime and Manga
- 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.
- 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.
- Monica's Gang had a story with this plot, in which Jimmy Five's dad chores him with painting the wall. He manages to get several children to paint in his place in exchange for stuff, but it's not long until things go wrong. It starts with Smudge painting an Elephant Monica, and ends with Jimmy's dad running into a gang covered in paint. Jimmy's friends run away, and his father now chores him with raking leaves. When Smudge teases him once more about having to work, he claims that he's having fun playing farmer and nobody can join.
- In one Archie Comics story had Archie finding his friends digging up a yard. They explain that Reggie had found a gold nugget there, and they were looking for more. It then transpires that Reggie was being paid to dig up the yard by the owner, and he planted that nugget to trick the others. After a discussion on the 1849 Gold Rush and Gold Fever in general, Moose "convinces" Reggie to share his pay with the rest of the gang.
- Nick in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids convinces his friend Tommy into mowing the lawn for him, and paying him for the privilege, because he gets to use their remote controlled lawnmower, which he thinks is really cool.
- An incident in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the Trope Namer as well as the Trope Codifier. Punished for disobedience, Tom has to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence. But, when another kid comes along, Tom acts like it's such an enjoyable activity that he ends up getting him, and soon most of the kids in the neighborhood, to perform the chore instead. In at least one adaptation, the kids do eventually realize they've been had, and turn on Tom.
- 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.
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..."
- A M*A*S*H episode has the thankless job of collecting charity donations passed around in this manner.
- In It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mac was putting gold spray paint on Frank's chair. Partway through, Mac asked Frank why he wants him to do it & Frank said he wants people to think his chair has been dipped in gold. Mac then criticized the idea & asked Frank how he got him to do it, to which, Frank replied, "If you make my chair look real nice, I'll tell you."
Charlie: Has that chair been dipped in gold?
- An episode of Blue Bloods has Officer Jamie Reagan doing this with his sergeant as a second job to pay off his Harvard student loans.
- An episode of Boy Meets World has Corey trying to trick his friends, until Minkus reminds them of Tom Sawyer.
- An episode of Rules of Engagement has Jeff trick Adam to clean up a store he rented for Audrey using this trope, first asking Adam if he ever read Tom Sawyer and then actually explaining Sawyer's trick.
- The Amanda Show has a Blockblister video in which "Tom Zawyer" (Blini) manages to convince a boy (Biscotti) to paint the fence, despite his actress' Bad "Bad Acting" when pretending to have fun. The boy also breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewers, "Little do I realize I am being duped!" Naturally, the Blockblister patron who wrote his book report on this, instead of on Tom Sawyer, ended up receiving an F.
- In The Big Bang Theory episode, "The Collaboration Contamination", Sheldon is jealous that Amy is collaborating with Howard on a project, and Bernadette uses this to get him to do chores around the house, telling him that Howard loves doing chores and Sheldon doing them for him would upset him. She even mentions the Trope Namer when she asks Sheldon if he's read Tom Sawyer.
- This is at least Older Than Radio, if not older: It was the primary modus operandi of Anansi The Spider, the 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 his game.
- 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.
- In No Rest for the Wicked, Perrault tells the bear that the dwarf who had stolen his treasure was digging under a tree, which is where Perrault's party wants something dug up.
- In one superhero arc strip of Arthur, King of Time and Space, Kingman is entirely immune to We Can Rule Together speeches, but is almost tempted to let Tom Sawyer go when he offers to let him whitewash the fence.
- South Park: Cartman manages to make a dying amusement park thrive by telling people they aren't allowed in. This false scarcity creates booming interest in the park. However, this was completely unintentional on his part. He really didn't want to let anyone in and wanted the park all to himself, but then one of the rides breaks, so he is forced to let in two customers per day so he could afford to hire a repairman, then two more customers so he could hire a security guard to stop people from sneaking in, and so on, and so on, until the park was totally packed all day every day. Cartman was making tons of money from it, but he didn't even care, because all he wanted was his own private amusement park where he didn't have to wait in line for rides. 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.
- In the Mission Hill episode Hot for Weirdie they start a fake nightclub in an electrical closet with a 100% reject rate. Naturally, this makes all the hipsters in the neighborhood insane to get in.
- A Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends short has Mr. Herriman punish Bloo with the chore of sorting the trash. Mac comes up with the idea for Bloo to make the other imaginary friends think that the job is fun so they would wanna do it and the two of them can sneak off and play (having been inspired by the Tom Sawyer book). This actually works, but Bloo begins to think that sorting the trash really is fun and forces everyone else to leave so he can have all the fun to himself, until he remembers that sorting the trash is not fun and is now stuck doing the job himself.
- In the Kim Possible episode "Car Trouble", Dr Drakken kidnaps a cybernetics expert to help build an army of robots. His attempts to coerce the captive fail, but Shego's insulting suggestion that he simply lacks the ability to help (with Drakken joining in when he sees that it's working) manipulate him into proving himself by cooperating fully.
- The Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? episode "Chapter and Verse" has Zack and Ivy crash-land in Hannibal, Missouri, breaking a picket fence. A local Mark Twain impersonator orders the duo to fix and repaint it. In order to resume their pursuit of Carmen, Ivy takes inspiration from Twain's Tom Sawyer, and leads Zack in convincing some children to paint the fence for them. He even manages to trade his brush for a skateboard and some fishing wire.
- A recent 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. This rarely works.
- Lobster was actually considered a poor persons meal until a few fishermen got the bright idea to send small amounts of them to the inner United States where rich people wouldn't know the stigma against eating it. It also helped that lobster ended up being scarcer than people thought after all helping its popularity among the wealthy even further.