Activists in Review: The Yes Men—taking on corporations, one prank at a time

In their ongoing efforts to reform corporations, advocates have used diverse tactics to expose detrimental practices or push for reform. On the one hand, public health professionals can change business practices that harm health by conducting research that documents the health problems associated with a particular product or industry and then bring these findings to the attention of policy makers. Another approach is to use tactics that expose and ridicule these types of corporate practices in an attempt to provoke media and public attention.

The two leading members of “The Yes Men,” known as “Andy Bichlbaum” and “Mike Bonanno” pose as Exxon oil executives shortly after making the announcement of a human-flesh-derived fuel called “Vivoleum” at the Oil and Gas Expo (GO-Expo 2007) in Calgary, Alberta.

The Yes Men, performance artists and global justice activists who expose corporate wrong doing, have used this latter approach by carrying out pranks and stunts to attract media coverage of dangerous or immoral business practices. In this profile, Corporations and Health Watch describes The Yes Men and analyzes the success of their antics in bringing about corporate change.

The Yes Men Fix the World

Perhaps the best way to explain The Yes Men, founded by performance artists and activists Mike Bonnano (real name, Igor Vamos) and Andy Bichlbaum (real name, Jacques Servin), is to describe some of their stunts.

In 1999, The Yes Men created GATT.org, a sham version of the World Trade Organization’s website that displays documents and reports satirizing the WTO’s approach to business. For example, a new release was posted stating : “At a Wharton Business School conference on business in Africa that took place on Saturday, November 11, the WTO announced the creation of a new, much-improved form of slavery for the parts of Africa that have been hardest hit by the 500-year history of free trade there.” After being mistaken for the real website, The Yes Men were invited to speak on behalf of the WTO with television reporters, schools and in other public settings.

In 2002, posing as trade experts, The Yes Men gave a lecture at a university in upstate New York proposing new solutions to world hunger. After serving the 100 students attending the talk free Big Macs, the lecturer proposed a new system for recycling Big Macs from human waste and serving them again. He showed a cost-benefit formula that proved the profitability of the recycling scheme, showing benefits for up to ten re-servings. By the end of the lecture, students were booing and hissing, just the reaction The Yes Men hoped to elicit.

In 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the toxic chemical disaster that killed about 20,000 people and left thousands more with chronic illnesses in Bhopal, India, The Yes Men posed as public spokesmen from Dow Chemical, the company that bought the Bhopal plant from Union Carbide. In an interview with BBC World News, the “spokesman” apologized profusely for the accident and promised that $12 billion would be donated to help clean up the waste site and provide compensation to the many people who were injured. Shortly after airing the interview, BBC World News discovered that the interview was a prank, leading it to apologize to its viewers for failing to uncover the deception. Dow denounced the hoax and reiterated their position that they had no responsibility for further compensation. Many newspapers and TV outlets covered the fake apology and the Dow response.

In 2007, Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum posed as an ethicist to deliver a speech to more than 300 oilmen attending Canada’s largest oil conference, GO-EXPO. During the speech, The Yes Men reassured the audience that even if oil procedures continue to cause environmental and health problems, the industry could turn the bodies of human victims into fuel. After lighting a candle of Vivoleum, a fuel allegedly made from human bodies, Bichlbaum was escorted off the stage. Yes Man Mike Bonanno joined the event posing as an spokesperson for Exxon. Later he told reporters, “If our idea of energy security is to increase the chances of climate calamity, we have a very funny sense of what security really is. While ExxonMobil continues to post record profits, they use their money to persuade governments to do nothing about climate change. This is a crime against humanity.”

Expose the Guts, Embarrass the Powerful, Have Fun

Under the teaching section on their website, The Yes Men explain their pedagogical approach:

When trying to understand how a machine works, it helps to expose its guts. The same can be said of powerful people or corporations who work hard to make themselves richer—regardless of consequence for everyone else. By catching powerful entities off guard, you can momentarily expose them to public scrutiny. This way, everyone sees how they work and can figure out how to control them. We call this identity correction. In a Nutshell:

Find a target (some entity running amok) and think of something sure to annoy them—something that’s also lots of fun.

If you’re stumped, imagine the target losing control and acting stupidly. What would it take to make them do that?

Capitalize on the target’s reaction. Write a press release and e-mail it to hundreds of journalists. In 1967, Yippies threw a hundred one-dollar bills from a balcony onto the New York Stock Exchange floor. The journalists they’d brought along told the world how the brokers, consumed with greed, dropped their trading and scrambled around for the money.

Preparing the Press Release. Imagine an “objective” newspaper story about the event. How would it read? Be realistic. Then write that story. (Got qualms? This is just what corporations do every day to sell products or candidates.)

The easiest way to embarrass someone powerful is to show how petty they are. Learn to embrace legal threats and use them as evidence in the court of public opinion.

After a screening of the Yes Men Fix the World at the Roxie, audience members and other members participated in a performance about Chevron.

Yes Men Impact

So what’s the impact of The Yes Men? First, they have been successful in attracting media coverage. The confusion and excitement that their events elicit have brought their message to millions of people not often reached by corporate reformers. In the process, the group has cast a shadow on the public images of several major corporations, including Dow Chemical, Halliburton, ExxonMobil, and McDonalds and business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the World Trade Organization.

Two films have been made about The Yes Men and their exploits, The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009), allowing their messages to reach a wider audience and to educate and raises consciousness among activists and reformers.

Some critics accuse The Yes Men of being insensitive—creating hoaxes that could raise false hopes or deceive victims. Others say they are sophomoric, simply ridiculing companies without leading people to meaningful action. In a review of, The Yes Men Fix the World, the New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden observes: “Whether their high jinks accomplish much beyond momentarily embarrassing the corporations and government agencies they misrepresent at business conferences and public forums is an open question. But it is great fun to watch them do their dirty work.”

To be effective, public health researchers, professionals and activists seeking to change harmful business practices need to use a range of tactics and strategies. The Yes Men suggest a model that warrants consideration.

Angela Donadic is a Masters of Public Health student and writes for Corporations and Health Watch.

The two leading members of “The Yes Men,”, known as “Andy Bichlbaum” and “Mike Bonanno” pose as Exxon oil executives shortly after making the announcement of a human-flesh-derived fuel called “Vivoleum” at the Oil and Gas Expo (GO-Expo 2007) in Calgary, Alberta.

 

Photo Credits:
1. itzafineday
2. joeathialy
3. ari
4. itzafineday