OK. That’s a weird idea to wrap your mind around. Then again, the exploits of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano are a bit weird. And difficult to wrap your mind around.
Bichlbaum and Bonnano are The Yes Men, two anti-corporate pranksters whom most people probably have heard about by catching an odd headline or hearing some bizarre snip-it on a cable news show. Such as this CNN report from 2004:
“An ‘elaborate deception’ has led at least two news organizations to report that Dow Chemical had accepted responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, sending the company's stock down temporarily. A person who claimed to be a Dow representative appeared on a BBC World news program Friday, saying the company had agreed to a multibillion-dollar compensation package.” (The hoax caused Dow's stock value to tumble $2 billion. In only 30 minutes.)
“By the time candles supposedly made from remains of a deceased ExxonMobil janitor named Reggie Watts were handed out, an audience of oil and gas professionals attending a keynote luncheon at Calgary's Gas and Oil Exposition realized they'd been had.”
Bichlbaum and Bonnano are experts at drawing attention through actions that force a double-take. They’ve posed as U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department spokesmen reopening a shuttered public housing complex in New Orleans. They’ve unveiled the Surivo-ball, while pretending to be Halliburton officials at a conference for disaster preparedness. They’ve handed out thousands of copies of a fake edition of the New York Times that announced “Iraq War Ends,” “Nationalized Oil to Fund Climate Change Efforts,” and dozens more fantasies.
The two Yes Men -- and a growing web-based band of merry fellow pranksters -- stretch the spectrum of political discourse well beyond what might be considered mainstream in Washington. In their new movie, they contrast “the cult of greed,” as personified by the late conservative economist Milton Friedman to simply doing what is right.
Because Friedman no longer can speak for himself (he’s dead), Bichlbaum and Bonnano set up interviews with representatives of free market think tanks. In one of my favorite scenes, Richard Ebeling of the Foundation for Economic Education requests that the filmmakers drop images onto the blue screen behind him showing “the prosperity of free men following what their hearts and desires lead them to.” For the rest of the movie, every time they cut back to the poor guy, there’s a comic strip of sadomasochistic gay sex behind his head while he extols the power of the market to solve all the world’s problems.
The large corporations targeted by The Yes Men obviously aren’t happy to be duped by them. But they don’t quite seem to know quite what to do to mitigate the PR damage. Part of their strategy seems to be to say as little as possible.
In response to the hoax that caused its stock valuation to drop by $2 billion in a half hour, Dow would only send out a brief statement: "While some may find 'The Yes Men' entertaining, it is important to realize that these pranksters continue to communicate inaccuracies.” (I sent Dow’s PR folks an e-mail, inviting them to detail those inaccuracies but didn’t get a response.)
After Bichlbaum pretended at the oil conference in Calgary that he was an aide to ExxonMobil’s former CEO who was unveiling a revolutionary form of energy made from human flesh, ExxonMobil spokesman Rob Young would only tell Reuters, "We think it is a serious matter when people willingly misrepresent themselves."
The problem is that The Yes Men aren’t simple liars. The power of their action actually lies in eventually being found out.
Contrast that with a story that’s been developing over the last couple of weeks in Washington. A small online newspaper, the Charlottesville, Va., Daily Progress, learned that a local U.S. House member had received letters, ostensibly from civil rights organizations, urging him to vote against the Waxman-Markey climate change bill. Only it turns out the letters were entirely bogus. They’d been forged by a Washington firm that specializes in fake grassroots campaigns on behalf of corporate clients.
The culprits in that campaign have volunteered the truth about as willingly as you might volunteer to your open mouth for a crazed, slobbering dentist with rusty pliers. It turns out that the “Astroturf” firm, Bonner and Associates, had been hired by the lobbyists who represent the coal industry in the climate legislation. The coal industry group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, at first claimed to know nothing about the forgeries, then admitted it knew about the deception weeks ago. At first, the gang said just one congressman got the letters; then, they guaranteed it was only three; now, it appears to be at least six.
I don’t know about you, but when one of these scandals involving deception by lobbyists and PR agencies pops up in Washington, I get the sense that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. For every ethically questionable action exposed, there are probably 10 more that you’ll never hear about.
If those kinds of dirty tricks stay secret, they tend to work. Such deceptions can only be effective as long as they remain deceptions.
That’s one difference between a mere hoax and a political prank. The Yes Men’s work depends entirely on the truth coming out. In fact, that’s their point: They push the limits of what might be believed in an attempt to show how absurd things have become. If their audience never gets the fact that The Yes Men are saying absurd things, the act falls flat.
In that sense, the Yes Men’s lies are all about honesty. And the shtick depends on the audience having the goodwill not only to accept -- but to value -- that paradox.
That’s a lot harder than it looks, even if you are funny. Despite how funny it was, Borat came across at times as mean-spirited, because some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s targets were easy rather than deserving. Michael Moore, on the other hand, turns off a lot of people because with crass self-righteousness; even if you agree with him, you find yourself wincing a bit.
Bichlbaum and Bonnano take on the personas of puzzled geeks. When their prey says something that the audience is sure to agree is ripe for mocking, the two look at each other with the wry expressions and perfect timing of great slapstick comics.
Most of the movie is documentary. But the real stuff is artfully interrupted by self-deprecating, over-the-top fictionalizations of their off-screen life. They supposedly reside in an underground, trash-strewn lair. When a “text message” comes to them early in the movie, it’s written on paper wrapped around a brick that’s thrown through the window. The brick lands on a pile of previous “text messages.”
Clearly, these aren’t just a couple of guys doing a few stunts. They’re too slick for that.
Yes, they are. It turns out that Bichlbaum and Bonnano both are accomplished artists with a long track record. Bichlbaum actually is Jacques Servin, a faculty member in arts and new media at the highly regarded Parsons School of Fine Arts in New York. Bonnano’s real name is Igor Vamos. He’s an associate professor at the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, a Guggenheim Fellow and the veteran of dozens of fascinating guerilla arts projects.
At least, that’s who I think they are.