By Elizabeth DiNovella on Nov 28, 2011
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are the guys behind the corporate pranksters known as the Yes Men. The anti-free market activists pose as representatives of big companies they don’t like and gleefully misrepresent them at conferences, online, and on TV.
In one of their biggest hoaxes, they posed as representatives from Dow Chemical on the BBC on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal accident. Some 300 million viewers watched as they apologized for Bhopal and pledged to adequately compensate the victims. Dow had to come forth and admit it wasn’t about to do any such thing. “Instead of trying to hoodwink the public, we’re trying to hoodwink corporations to reveal information to the public,” says Bonanno.
The Yes Men have pulled pranks at the World Trade Organization, posed as the federal government in New Orleans post-Katrina, and pretended to be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They take absurd ideas and pass them off as real ones. Says Bonanno, “A lot of times the best ideas are really just turning around the idea that a corporation already had, and pushing it further than they intended.”
They have produced two films, The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009), which showcase their finest work.
In 2008, they created a faux New York Times paper that announced the end of the Iraq War and handed out thousands of free copies in Manhattan. They also went after Chevron last year.
The two are now busy creating the Yes Lab, workshops that advise activist groups on how to run similiar campaigns. In April, one group, US Uncut, a grassroots movement pressuring corporate tax cheats to pay their fair share, posted a fake GE press release announcing it would return its $3.2 billion tax refund. Several media outlets, including USA Today, ran the story as true. “By doing these more creative projects we’re able to open up space in the newspapers that otherwise weren’t giving any column inches to voices that we hoped to represent,” says Bonanno.
I caught up with the Yes Men a few months ago when they were in Madison, Wisconsin, speaking at the university. During the Q&A portion of the event, a nine-year-old asked them what he could do to change the world. “We did ask for hard questions,” they said. “Look around and keep noticing how stupid adults are, and when they’re lying.”
Q: How do you pick your targets?
The Yes Men: They often pick us. The Chevron action was a collaboration with the Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch. A friend of ours at Rainforest Action contacted us and said, “Oh my god, you won’t believe it! We have this inside information on Chevron’s new ad campaign.”
The campaign, called “We Agree,” featured a United-Colors-of-Benetton-type ad that tried to get people to think Chevron was different, that it, a corporation, agreed with people’s sentiments about holding corporations accountable—all this stuff that it clearly had no intention of honoring because its bottom line wouldn’t allow it.
It was a $50 million ad campaign; Chevron is expected to spend $100 million in advertising this year. Pundits were on TV saying it will really be a test to see whether Chevron is true to its word. That’s an insane message. How can you even think that Chevron might mean what it’s saying in this ad campaign? Especially when some of the ads say things like, “Companies need to get real.” How are they going to honor that? They’re already too real; that’s the problem. Oil companies actually need to get less real.
So we created our own PR campaign for Chevron, admitting to abuses that companies usually try to hide. “Oil Companies Should Clean Up Their Messes,” read one ad. “Oil Companies Should Fix the Problems They Create,” said another.
We announced our new campaign eight hours before Chevron’s campaign. Our press release was reprinted by Fast Company and taken as real until they caught themselves and issued a disclaimer, with good humor, saying, “We were tricked.” We sent out a fake response, too, about the hoax, and that was completely confusing to a lot of reporters.
The point was to show how advertising works. And we demolished their campaign online. If you search for it, you get our ads. Chevron decided not to stop the campaign. It poured more money into it. A network of dedicated activists is giving Chevron an interesting run for their money.
Q: How have your strategies changed?
The Yes Men: Times have changed a bit. When we were doing the stuff against the World Trade Organization, we were part of a massive global movement that was gaining more and more momentum. That was up until 2001.
Before the 9/11 fear crackdown, public protest was seeing a lot of success, and so we could operate semi-autonomously as part of a big movement. That stopped making sense once that movement was kind of toppled.
We also just came to realize that it made much more sense for us to work with organizations that were ready to keep pushing their campaigns forward. Now, it’s getting even more tactical because we try to select the organizations we work with (or they try to select us), based on the needs of their campaign. So if they have a specific flashpoint in their campaign where they need more public attention, then that’s where we might play the most effective role.
Q: Talk about the Yes Lab. How will it work?
The Yes Men: We’re just gearing up right now, the last few months, so it’s fresh. The basic model is to get together with activist organizations that want to do some kind of creative activism to highlight their issue. We get together for a day or two and brainstorm with them, and then flesh it out, come up with a plan. The idea is that they then do it. In a couple of cases, we’ve ended up doing it with them, like the Chevron thing, but really, what we’re aiming at is people do it and we just help behind the scenes a little bit. And then they’ll have that knowledge of how to do it, and maybe be able to do it more, or train other people. It’s simple.
Every Yes Lab will hopefully have a participatory component. Some of them might be crazy or weird or performative, the type of things where people get out and do something simultaneously in public, or who knows, maybe we can call for blockades or direct action if it’s creative enough. The thing is, people who sign up on the Yes Men list want to do something that’s a little bit wacky.
Q: How come you guys haven’t gotten arrested?
The Yes Men: Because we don’t do anything illegal—I mean, at least not anything that anyone can tell us is illegal. People can say it is, but it’s usually lay people or friends who say, “Oh, you’re going to get arrested!” When you go into a business conference, you’re not really exposing yourself to be arrested. They’re not going to disrupt their own conference to arrest you, and they can’t, anyway, because you’re invited.
And for actions that are more like the Chevron thing, I mean, who’s going to arrest us? We didn’t defraud anyone. We didn’t take anyone’s money. There’s really no risk.
When we started doing this, we thought we would get arrested the first time. Then the second time, less so, and by the third time, we knew we were not going to get arrested, probably no matter what we did. But if we had gotten arrested, it would have been great, because it just would have helped highlight the action.
Q: Is it ever surprising how gullible the media is?
The Yes Men: No. They’re bombarded with falsehoods all the time. Millions of dollars in PR are being spent on making them gullible.
The majority of communications they receive are hoaxes, perpetrated either by corporations or government, through PR agencies and PR flacks. We’re adding to that mess, but the big difference is that their hoaxes are never revealed. They never say, “This is a hoax,” but we do it a few hours or a few days later.
Q: Is it illegal to use the Chevron logo or the New York Times masthead?
The Yes Men: Depends how you use it. Under the fair use doctrine, you can use it for pretty much anything you want if you’re attacking it. So you can rip off Snoopy to attack Snoopy, or MetLife, or Mickey Mouse to attack Disney. But you can’t rip off Snoopy or Mickey Mouse to advertise chewing gum or to illustrate a child’s birthday flyer. You have to get permission for that.
Q: So if I create a fake New York Times newspaper, there’s nothing illegal about it?
The Yes Men: As long as you’re commenting on The New York Times. We really wanted to use it because it was the newspaper of record, and you have to announce the end of the Iraq War in The New York Times. It’s the only place to do it. We printed a few corrections in there that did attack their misreporting of things in the past. So we did attack them a little tiny bit, and that was partly for legal reasons, partly because it was a good thing to do, and really, we were inviting them to come after us by not really protecting ourselves under the law. They couldn’t, though, because they have a stake in the First Amendment since they’re a newspaper. And if they start attacking people for free speech, it’s themselves that they’re attacking.
Q: What are some of the more effective forms of activism?
The Yes Men: Direct action. If you could get 10,000 people to commit to getting arrested for something, you have a really good chance of winning. Not only because it’s really visible in the media and it makes an impact when you have wave after wave after wave of people, including some famous people, getting arrested, but also because if each of those people demands a trial, it completely gums up the whole system. Under American law, if you’re accused of a crime, you can demand a jury trial. That seems like the most effective form of activism.
Along with that, legal activism, people trying to change laws. We need regulation. There’s an effort to get us to think the solution is in the pocketbook. It’s not. It’s making laws that we want, and changing other ones.
Another example is the anti-mountaintop-removal campaign. Four banks have divested from mining companies due to civil disobedience. The need for civil disobedience can’t be overstressed.
Millions of people in the streets couldn’t prevent the Iraq War. If a tenth of that many people committed civil disobedience and had actually gotten arrested, what would have happened? Maybe it would have stopped the war. If it was a real threat to the system, maybe the war wouldn’t have happened. It’s definitely something to try. You make it impossible for the system to continue, and it stops.
Elizabeth DiNovella is culture editor of The Progressive.